19 protesters injured, 26 arrested in clashes with Ukrainian police in Kiev

AFP , Tuesday 17 Dec 2019

At least 19 people were injured as protesters clashed with police in Ukraine's capital Kiev Tuesday, trading rocks and teargas during a demonstration against the proposed sale of farm land.

Thousands of people took part in the protest, including farmers and nationalist militants, blocking traffic outside the parliament building.

They hurled rocks and bricks at the police who responded with the tear gas in a bid to disperse them,

One group of protesters set up two large tents outside parliament, but police tore them down and repelled the demonstrators.

Around 500 people took part in the clashes with police, leading to 26 arrests, according to Kiev police chief Andrii Kryshchenko.

A total of 2,500 police officers were deployed. Seventeen of them suffered injuries, the police chief said.

An AFP journalist saw two protesters lying unconscious and stretchered off to ambulances.

The protesters denounced a bill going through parliament which would open up the sale of farmland from October 2020, a scheme that has met with public criticism.

Opinion polls show between half and two-thirds of Ukrainians oppose the initiative, fearing it will only benefit local oligarchs and foreign investors.

Illegal To Sell Land 

During a stormy first reading in parliament last month, 240 lawmakers in the 450-seat chamber backed the law as farmers and nationalists protested outside the parliament building.

The reform is awaited by investors but critics fear that opening up the land market will lead to a takeover by foreign owners of giant holdings of land which has been available only for rent since the Soviet period.

Some farmland is owned by the government in Ukraine -- known as "the breadbasket of Europe" -- but much of it is in small plots individuals received after the breakup of the Soviet Union and is currently illegal to sell.

While the bill is strongly promoted by President Volodymyr Zelensky, he has been unable to convince some in his own party to support it, having to rely on votes from independent lawmakers.

The prospect triggers intense unease in Ukraine which experienced multiple failed economic reforms in the past three decades and where small farmers are too poor to benefit from a market opening.

"It is essential that major international groups don't buy up all the land. Ukrainians don't have the money to do so themselves," said Roman Chernyshev, spokesman for the far-right National Corps group which was in the front line of Tuesday's clashes.

"The farmers working the land must take possession and not big owners," said farmer Valeriï Ishchenko, 56, who came from the west-central city of Vinnytsia to take part in the Kiev protest.

In a bid to reassure voters, Zelensky has promised a national referendum before opening the land market up to foreign buyers.

Ukraine has around 32.5 million hectares of arable land, almost double that of France.

The former Soviet republic, whose stalling economy has been propped up by Western aid for years, is home to one-third of the world's fertile black soil rich in nutrients, according to the World Bank.

Opening it up for sale could lead to a 1.5 percent GDP boost, it said in a 2017 report.

Short link: