On January 12, the legislature of the Republic of Altai will convene and rubberstamp President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent nomination of republic head Aleksandr Berdnikov for a second term.
The date is significant because it comes almost exactly one year after the January 9, 2009, crash of a helicopter in the republic carrying several high-ranking officials who had been shamelessly shooting endangered animals with high-powered rifles for “sport.” Among the dead were Medvedev’s envoy to the State Duma and the local head of the Committee on the Preservation and Exploitation of Natural Resources. Regional Deputy Governor Anatoly Bannikh survived the crash, as he survived a similar crash in 2005. The helicopter was owned by – Gazpromavia.
After activists got a hold of photos of the carcasses of the slaughtered endangered animals and posted them online, there was a brief storm of public outrage. The government’s response was to conduct a closed investigation and sweep the whole thing under the rug. Anyone out there remember hearing about convictions (killing protected argali mountain sheep is a crime punishable by up to two years in prison)?
The website rabkor.ru, writing before Medvedev's reappointment of Berdnikov, listed the incident on its roll call of 2009 events, naming the dead poachers “Bureaucrats of the Year”:
Investigators open and close the case into the helicopter crash. In the end, those who died are blamed. The Investigative Committee cannot explain why Altai Republic Deputy Governor Anatoly Bannikh and the three other crash survivors are not guilty of killing the argali sheep. Bannikh, incidentally, indirectly took the blame on himself and quit his post.
(Bannikh’s resignation came in March. The investigation cleared him of poaching charges. This “Izvestia” account of his resignation ends with the telling line: “By all accounts, Anatoly Bannikh is not too worried about his future.” I asked RFE/RL’s Russian Service what Bannikh is up to now, a year after his brush with death and got this response: “Anatoly Bannikh lives in Moscow. According to several sources, he is tied to structures affiliated Gazprom. He continues to control the financial-industrial group Sibma (Barnaul) and his media business (“Komsomolskaya pravda – Altai,” “Argumenty i fakty – Altai,” a radio group, and Internet resources)." Sounds like he landed on his feet – again.)
There are a couple of takeaways in this story. For one things, it puts the lie to the assertion that the Internet has enabled Russian society to influence government decisions. This bold claim was made most clearly in a piece by Yelena Lukyanova, a law professor and member of the Public Chamber (tireless analyst Paul Goble summarized Lukyanova’s surprising assertions here). In the wake of the scandal involving police Major Aleksei Dymovsky, who posted his revelations about police corruption on YouTube and held a couple of scandalous press conferences, Lukyanova argued that the Russian government was now responding to “public pressure,” despite “the miserly number of viable independent media” and “a regime of criminal-legal repression” (harsh words from someone on the Kremlin-nurtured Public Chamber!).
If she were writing now, Lukyanova would have to concede that Dymovsky underwent a vicious campaign of character assassination (including a reprehensible article by Constitutional Court Chairman Valery Zorkin in “Rossiiskaya gazeta” to mark Constitution Day). He was fired from his job. He now faces criminal prosecution. If there are any positive consequences of Dymovsky’s YouTube posts, they are certainly a lot slower to manifest themselves than the negative ones. No wonder so few people are lining up to follow his example.
In this case of the Altai helicopter poaching, everyone knows it “happens all the time” and that the central government, the republican government, and Gazprom are deeply implicated. When I wrote about the poaching on this blog last January, one reader commented: “I would have hope (and still have a little hope) that Putin and the Russian government would want to make an example of these poachers as a way of promoting his anti-corruption campaign. With such excellent documentation of the poaching, it seems like a slam dunk.” Now, a year later, we have the answer, dear reader.
Rabkor.ru ended its summary of the crash by saying: “The story of this hunt greatly damaged the image of the current head of the Republic of Altai Aleksandr Berdnikov, whose term expires in January 2010.”
Apparently, though, it didn’t damage Berdnikov’s image in the eyes of Medvedev.
“Regardless of all the statements by the opposition, the center decided not to listen to anyone,” Nikolai Litovtsev, editor of the regional newspaper “Postscriptum,” told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “Maybe they thought that doing so would be seen as weakness. This decision once again shows that the power vertical lives its own life and the desires of the people of this or that region are beside the point.”
The thing about Berdnikov is that he is Gazprom’s candidate. “The problem is when a powerful financial-industrial group or some other major monopolist comes to an area and begins – like a bull in a china shop – to set up its own rules,” Litsovtsev said in the interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service. “Gazprom has come here. We are talking about the interests of only Gazprom, which will be promoted by the newly appointed governor and that’s all there is to it.”