In 2021, the citizens of Ukraine may lose about 10,000 land plots in the territory of Crimea. The one-year term, which the Russian occupation authorities gave to “foreigners” for alienation, expires in March. Human rights activists consider that Russia not only deprives Ukrainian citizens of property but also tries to oust Ukrainian identity from Crimea by doing so.
On 20 March 2020, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the Decree No. 201, putting certain territories on the list of those where land plots cannot be owned by “foreigners” and “foreign legal entities.” Ukrainian lawyers explain that this decree actually imposes an obligation on foreigners to dispose of their land plots within a year. If they fail to do so in due time or do not want to do so, Russia will apply to national courts to forcibly alienate land plot, i.e., to sell on auction and receive compensation that will not necessarily correspond to the market value of the land.
“In general, banning foreigners from owning land or imposing any other restrictions on them in the context of land management is a fairly common practice in the world. As a rule, the countries associate it with the protection of national interests, say, state sovereignty, etc. However, it is important that a state can establish such rules only on its sovereign territory. If we are talking about land plots in the occupied Crimea, then we can underline that such actions of Russia are openly illegal and contrary to international law because Crimea is an internationally recognised territory of Ukraine, while the Russian Federation is an occupying power. Crimea has only one border – the Ukrainian one. In accordance with international law, an occupying power may not extend its legislation to the occupied territory unless for the reasons of protection of public order or protection of human rights. As we can see, in the situation with Putin’s decree, there were no legal grounds to classify the territories of Crimea as Russia’s border areas,” Maksym Tymochko, a lawyer at the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, says.
Maksym Tymochko refers to the European Convention on Human Rights, the First Protocol of which states that everyone has the right to protection of property. It does not indicate that property rights are absolute; they can be limited in certain situations.
“Russian law, which provides for the forcible confiscation of land plots from Ukrainian citizens in Crimea, is an illegal interference in these rights as it contradicts the international law which prohibits the occupying power from behaving so toward civilians during the occupation,” the lawyer said.
It is important to understand that the occupying power in Crimea made an inventory of land plots on the peninsula in 2020 and distinguished between “foreigners” and “citizens of the Russian Federation.” That is, it actually stated that those, who had obtained Russian citizenship, were safe because they were considered compatriots and could own land plots in the border areas. Those, who have a land plot in Crimea but lived at the time of the occupation, for example, in Kyiv or even in Crimea without confirmed registration on the peninsula, are not recognised as citizens of the Russian Federation and must dispose of their property.
“When it comes to bringing Russia to justice, we have every reason to say that it has a hidden purpose of such an intervention: ousting Ukrainian identity from Crimea,” Tymochko adds.
It is important to understand that virtually all of Crimea has been classified as a border area where the rights of “foreigners” are restricted. According to the Prosecutor’s Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, the decree of the President of Russia covers about 80% of the peninsula – all districts except Bilohirsk, Krasnohvardiyske and Pervomaiske, as well as almost the entire city of Sevastopol.
“The logic of the occupier can be summarised as follows: either take Russian citizenship, or go away as only Russian citizens can own land here,” Tymochko concludes.
And this applies primarily to those persons who during all seven years of temporary occupation have been renouncing the imposed Russian citizenship in Crimea and kept Ukrainian passports. Land and real estate can now be confiscated from them.
It should be noted that Decree No. 201 is not the first attempt of the Russian Federation to take away the property of citizens in Crimea. Since 2014, other pretexts have been used, such as “nationalisation,” expropriation, and seizure under court decisions.
According to lawyers, the Russian Federation will apply to the courts in March this year to forcibly expropriate land plots belonging to individual citizens of Ukraine. After all, people who have received a notice, for example, from the management of a housing community, saying that “foreign citizens do not have the right to own land” already address lawyers. In theory, once the first positive court decision is received, former owners can apply for leasing their land plot and pay a rent to the occupying power. However, it is not a very suitable way out for the Ukrainian citizens who live on the mainland. If this does not happen, the real estate located on a plot can be considered an unauthorised construction which is subject to demolition.