Poaching by Helicopter a Popular Pastime

23 January 2009
By Anna Malpas / Staff Writer Moscow Times

When a helicopter carrying senior government officials crashed into a
remote Altai mountainside earlier this month, killing several
passengers, the accident appeared to be nothing more than a tragic
loss of life.

But photographs snapped at the crash site have thrown a spotlight on
what conservationists say is a disturbingly popular pastime among the
country’s political and business elite: the expensive sport of
poaching from helicopters.

One photograph published on an Altai region web site shows the
carcasses of endangered argali sheep among the wreckage of the Mi-171
helicopter that crashed Jan. 9. One of the sheep has a knife sticking
out of its haunches.

The wild sheep is one of Russia‘s rarest animals, and hunting it is
punishable by up to two years in prison. The photograph prompted
ecologists to press prosecutors to investigate whether the officials
were hunting illegally when their helicopter went down.

Among the seven federal, regional and local officials killed in the
crash was Viktor Kaimin, the Altai republic’s top official charged
with protecting the region’s wildlife and whose committee was
responsible for issuing hunting licenses.

Regional prosecutors say no formal investigation has been opened into
whether the officials were engaging in illegal hunting, though
regional environmental officials said they would push for a probe
into the circumstances of the incident, which some ecologists and
political commentators have dubbed “Altaigate.”

Conservationists say it is an open secret that officials come to
Altai for hunting trips in which they simply shoot at animals from
hovering helicopters, despite a ban on the practice.

With its remote mountains, the pristine Gorny Altai region is popular
with hunters, and hunting is legal in some areas for Siberian goat
and red deer.

“Over the last decade, Altai has become a place where helicopter
hunting has become rather common,” said Alexei Vaisman, head of WWF-
Russia’s anti-animal trafficking program.

The officials in the fatal expedition had hunting licences for
Siberian goats and red deer, Yelena Kobzeva, a spokeswoman for the
Altai government, told Interfax. The photographs published on the
AltaPress.ru web site, however, clearly show animals with round
curved horns, while Siberian goats have tall, slightly curved horns.

Vaisman, whose organization has been joined by Greenpeace and other
environmental groups in calling for an investigation, said WWF-Russia
does not “want anyone’s blood.”

“We don’t want anyone to be imprisoned,” Vaisman said. “The main aim
of our actions is to make a court give an official legal assessment
of what happened.”

Also killed in the crash were Alexander Kosopkin, the Kremlin’s envoy
to the State Duma, and Sergei Livishin, a senior member of the
presidential administration.

Survivors included Anatoly Bannykh, deputy head of the Altai
‘s administration, and Nikolai Kopranov, an adviser to the
Duma’s Economic Policy Committee.

Gorny Altai attracts “VIP hunters,” said Oleg Mitvol, the outspoken
deputy head of Federal Inspection Service for Natural Resources Use.
“There are special lodges that can only be reached by helicopter,”
Mitvol said. “They are luxurious. Just imagine how much it costs to
stay there.”

Environmentalists say helicopter hunting trips cannot be organized
without the knowledge and support of local officials.

It’s “rather common” for regional officials to treat federal
officials to free hunting trips, Vaisman said. “It’s not a bribe,
it’s to make good relations, to get additional money to the region
from the federal center,” he said.

Low-level officials are often involved in organizing the trips too.
State game wardens receive “almost negligible” salaries of around
1,000 rubles ($32) per month, Vaisman said.

Such helicopter hunting trips are organized in Kamchatka, Magadan,
Sakhalin and Primorye regions, Vaisman said. “It’s popular among high-
level officials and so-called New Russians, who think they are above
the law,” he said.

The targets can be mountain sheep, snow sheep, mountain goats, bears
or moose, Vaisman said. “They shoot directly from the helicopter and
then land to pick up any trophies,” he said.

Kobzeva, the Altai Republic administration spokeswoman, told The
Moscow Times by telephone that the officials who crashed earlier this
month were on a private trip and that no funds from the regional
budget were used to finance it. The administration has no information
on who ordered and paid for the trip, Kobzeva said.

Helicopter hunting trips even take place in nature reserves, said
Mikhail Paltsyn, a scientist with a UN-sponsored environmental
program called Biodiversity Conservation in the Russian Portion of
the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion.

“Helicopter hunts take place regularly for Siberian goats and red
in the Argut River valley, in Shavlinsky nature reserve, where
hunting is completely banned,” Paltsyn said in e-mailed comments. “On
practically all our expeditions to the Argut River valley, we see
hunting helicopters and find traces of such hunting. Local residents
say that helicopters with hunters come to these places every month.”

Last February, conservationists spotted a helicopter on two
consecutive days circling and apparently firing at Siberian goats and
red deer. They wrote down the number and contacted game wardens and
police. “The people responsible were never found,” Paltsyn said. “It
looks like the servants of the people were hunting again.”

Hiring a helicopter costs tens of thousands of rubles per hour, said
Anatoly Mozharov, the editor of Safari magazine for hunters. Mozharov
stressed, however, that legitimate hunters use helicopters to fly to
far-flung areas and then hunt from the ground.

Killing a protected animal is a crime in Russia punishable by up to
two years. Relatively few poachers are ever convicted, however,
officials and environmentalists said.

“Very few investigations are ever opened regarding ecological
crimes,” Mitvol said. “Last year, practically none were opened.
Unfortunately, many VIP hunters take into account that no criminal
investigation will ever be opened against them.”

A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General’s Office said the office had
no available data on the number of illegal hunting cases investigated
last year or the number of people convicted of poaching.

Convictions are rare in such cases because illegal hunting is “very,
very difficult to prove,” said Alexander Bondarev, head of the
Biodiversity Conservation in the Russian Portion of the Altai-Sayan

“Some people see a helicopter in the mountains, but it’s not possible
to determine which animal was shot,” he said.

In Gorny Altai, hunters often receive permission to shoot Siberian
goats — whose territory is close to that of the endangered argali
sheep, Bondarev said. The hunters can therefore claim that they are
shooting at the goats, not the wild sheep.

“The only possibility is to find the hunter near the animal,”
Bondarev said. “But it’s very difficult to prove that he killed this

Bondarev’s organization was one of the first to issue a statement
identifying the animals in the photograph as argali sheep. The
organization focuses on the conservation of argali and the snow
leopard, both of which are listed as endangered in Russia.

The argali sheep is one of the region’s rarest species, and its
population in Russia numbers only a few hundred.

The argali are the largest wild sheep in the world. Their large,
curly horns, weighing around 50 kilograms, are prized as trophies.

The area where the helicopter crashed is home to the largest group of
argali sheep in Russia. Since they migrate between Mongolia and
Russia, it is difficult to say how many sheep remain. In winter it
could be 100-150, while in summer they number up to 400, Paltsyn said.

“The greatest threat for argali is poaching, including hunting by
some local residents and hunting for pleasure and trophies by
visiting hunters,” Paltsyn said.

It is unclear how many argali are killed illegally each year in
Russia, Bondarev said. He estimated that around six of the animals
are poached annually.

Kaimin, the environmental official killed in the crash, was embroiled
in a scandal in 2003 after he was purportedly seen hunting argali
sheep. Altai Republic lawmakers appealed to prosecutors to
investigate the incident, though the case was later dropped.

A spokesman for the Altai newspaper that reported on the story,
Postskriptum, said in a telephone interview that the case was dropped
because it rested exclusively on statements from witnesses.

Attempts to reach the Altai Republic‘s committee for the protection,
use and reproduction of the animal world — which Kaimin headed up
before his death — were unsuccessful. The committee had only five
members, of whom only one was an inspector, Paltsyn said. Until
recently, it had no transport, funds for raids or inspector team, he

“If the fact of poaching is confirmed, then of course this
organization is just ineffective,” said Svetlana Shchegrina, head of
environmental education at the Altai regional nature reserve, which
also has a population of argali sheep. “It’s a terrible case.”



21 thoughts on “Poaching by Helicopter a Popular Pastime”

  1. http://www.moscowtimes.ru/articles/detail.php?ID=374162

    Agency Says Helicopter Crashed on Illegal Hunt

    03 February 2009
    By Anna Malpas / Staff Writer

    The Federal Air Transport Agency has said in an internal telegram that a hunting expedition comprised of senior government officials was hunting illegally from a helicopter last month when the aircraft crashed in the Altai region, killing seven.

    The Jan. 19 telegram, excerpts of which were published Monday in Izvestia, is the first official confirmation that the passengers were shooting from the air, a criminal offense in Russia.

    The telegram confirms earlier speculation that the helicopter crashed as the pilot was trying to land in order to recover the carcass of a wild animal shot from the aircraft.

    Federal Air Transport Agency spokesman Sergei Izvolsky confirmed Monday that the telegram was genuine but said the internal correspondence was illegally leaked to newspapers.

    The telegram calls for the heads of all airlines to tighten control over flights for private clients. The official aim of the Jan. 9 flight in the Altai region was aerial surveying, but “what in fact took place was shooting animals from the helicopter,” the telegram says.

    The helicopter hovered “unacceptably low,” and then passengers “began to look for and shoot wild animals from the ground and from the helicopter,” the telegram said. “As the helicopter went down to collect another shot animal, it hit the mountainside.”

    The helicopter was carrying the bodies of two animals that had been shot and killed, the telegram says.

    Among those killed when the Mi-171 helicopter crashed was Alexander Kosopkin, President Dmitry Medvedev’s envoy to the State Duma.

    A photograph of the crash site subsequently published by the web site Altapress.ru showed carcasses of what conservationists said were endangered argali sheep lying next to the helicopter.

    Altapress.ru on Monday published a scanned copy of the internal telegram stating that the officials were hunting illegally.****

    The telegram says the helicopter was being flown not by the surviving pilot, Maxim Kolbin, but by a passenger, a local helicopter commander, Vladimir Podoprigora, who died in the crash.

  2. Jennifer Castner’s translation of the article below:

    Vice premier of Altai Republic, survivor of the Mi-8 catastrophe, to retire

    Vice premier of Altai Repblic, Anatoliy Bannykh, will retire. Bannykh reported to the local parliament about illegal hunting in the Altai mountains with other highly-placed officials, as a result of which seven died, and asked to be relieved of his post.

    “I didn’t know that we were flying to hunt for arkhar (argali). The hunt was organized by Viktor Kaymin, head of the Republic’s RosPrirodNadzor. I only learned that we would be hunting mountain sheep when I was already on the helicopter. I didn’t even have a weapon on me.” The governor has yet to accept his resignation.

    In other news, a number of Russian NGOs and other groups have been petitioning the federal government, calling on it to prosecute the survivors to the fullest extent of the law. However, no criminal case regarding the poaching incident has been opened as far as I know, although there is a semi-active, not very transparent investigation of improper use of the helicopter, etc. Technical stuff. There have also been public protests recently, in Gorno-Altaisk, Moscow, and Barnaul (I think I have those cities right). There are a couple of Russian-language sites and blogs that are actively following this.



    Алтайский вице-премьер, выживший в катастрофе Ми-8, подал в отставку [Запомнить эту страницу!]

    Вице-премьер республики Алтай Анатолий Банных подал в отставку. Банных отчитался перед депутатами местного законодательного собрания о браконьерской охоте в горах Алтая с участием высокопоставленных чиновников, в результате которой погибли семь человек, и заявил, что покидает свой пост.
    “Я не знал, что мы летим охотиться на архаров. Охоту организовывал Виктор Каймин, начальник республиканского Росприродонадзора. О том, что мы летим охотиться на горных баранов он мне сказал только в вертолете. У меня даже ружья не было при себе”, – сказал чиновник. Губернатор пока не принял отставку чиновника.


  3. Printed from The Times of India

    Russian elite use choppers to hunt rare wildlife
    6 Mar 2009, 2010 hrs IST, AFP

    MOSCOW: Russian environmentalists vowed a campaign against top officials who hunt endangered species from helicopters, after a crash in January highlighted the practice.

    The Russian chapter of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) said it had lodged a complaint with prosecutors over the investigation into a January 9 helicopter crash in the mountainous Altai region, alleging irregularities in the probe.

    Seven people were killed in the crash that took place during what environmentalists say was a trip to hunt the region’s endangered Argali mountain sheep.

    Among the dead was President Dmitry Medvedev’s representative in the Duma lower house of parliament, Alexander Kosopkin.

    “It’s a classic example of corruption when officials use helicopters, for which of course they haven’t paid, for such unprincipled, immoral, out-of-season hunting,” said local WWF head Igor Chestin at a news conference.

    An activist from the Altai region, Akai Kynyev, said he and other opponents were trying to secure the resignation of the entire Altai leadership, after its deputy governor resigned in the wake of the incident.

    “We want the resignation of the whole leadership team…. They blame the pilot and try to claim that those on the helicopter didn’t know they would be hunting mountain sheep,” which are traditionally revered in the region, said Kynyev.

    “We’re deeply offended by this form of illegal hunting and the attempt to hide what happened from the people and to blacken the names of those who try to make public what happened,” he told journalists.

    Hunting has long been a sign of status among officials in this vast and sparsely populated country. In the 1990s deer and bison were hunted from helicopters using machine guns, said Chestin.

    The problem continues today, with snow leopards and Siberian tigers hunted from helicopters in such areas as Yakutia, he said.

    Calls to seek comment from the Altai administration went unanswered on Friday.

  4. http://www.moscowtimes.ru/articles/detail.php?ID=375090

    Protests Are More Than About Sheep
    05 March 2009By Boris Kagarlitsky

    It is likely that nobody would have taken note of the crash of an Mi-171 helicopter in the Altai region on Jan. 9 if the president’s representative to the State Duma, Alexander Kosopkin, had not been among the dead. The passengers who survived the accident were members of the local and federal political elite.

    The passengers had been illegally hunting endangered wild sheep, but that did not come to light through a press leak. Such information does not reach the public’s attention, so photographs of the guilty hunters shooting the sheep could only have been divulged by well-connected people who want to settle some scores. The “hunting” crisis that resulted is just the latest symptom of the growing conflict in the upper echelons of government.

    Altai authorities are doing everything in their power to hush up the affair, but that is only aggravating the situation. The obvious unwillingness of the authorities to bring criminal charges against the offenders has made people angry in Altai and in the capital as well. Authorities have started putting pressure on protesters, transforming the problem from an animal-protection scandal into a political one.

    Opponents of the illegal hunters have been accused of everything from trying to foment an Orange Revolution to advocating that the region break away from Russia and unite with neighboring Mongolia, the country to which ecologists say the remnants of the endangered sheep herd escaped.

    Now the discussion has shifted from saving endangered species to universal accountability before the law. If the wrongdoers are not punished, it will be one more proof that in Russia there exists a privileged class of people who stand above the law and the Constitution.

    Protesters staged demonstrations in Altai and Moscow, and they will continue. Among the demonstrators were people who would never think of joining a Communist Party rally or a Dissenters’ March, and that is precisely what is so worrisome to the authorities. Dissatisfaction is spreading not only among those who are traditionally antagonistic toward the authorities but among those who had been loyal supporters of the government.

    For their part, the authorities’ actions are inspiring usually passive people to join the protests, even while dissatisfaction continues to grow. The country’s rulers have still failed to recognize that not only the economic situation has changed but also the public’s mindset. The people’s psychology evolves quickly under crisis conditions. By being unable to reach compromises and by ignoring public opinion, government officials create new enemies by their own actions. They provoke people into protesting, thereby giving them unexpected lessons in political struggle. Protests are breaking out among people worried about the environment, among automobile owners, Internet users and automobile factory workers. It almost seems as if the authorities are testing the public’s resilience, trying to find out exactly what it will and will not accept.

    Of course, the case of the illegal sheep hunters will not cause a major transformation of the political landscape, but it has managed to destabilize one of Russia’s most politically docile regions. Knowing the way the political elite conducts itself, it is not hard to imagine that pockets of protest will erupt in other regions as well.

    Leaders will be able to control the situation as long as those demonstrations remain isolated incidents. But sooner or later, the tide will turn, and they will escalate into something larger and more widespread.

    Boris Kagarlitsky is the director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.

  5. From: AltaiNGOs@yahoogroups.com On Behalf Of Jennifer Castner
    Sent: Thursday, March 12, 2009

    Notes from 2 March 2009 meeting with helicopter crash survivor Anatoly Bannykh

    Meeting notes by Aleksey Gribkov (Geblerovskoye Ecological Society)
    (translated by Galina Angarova)

    On March 2, Anatoly Bannykh met with representatives of the Public Chamber of the Altai region and a number of regional NGOs. Bannkyh was invited to the meeting by Konstantin Emeshin, and Emeshin was the one who conducted the meeting.

    Also in attendance were:
    Butina Maria Valerievna
    Grishkovets Alexey Petrovich
    Dvornikov Viktor Mironovich
    Derban Galina Vasilievna
    Ditz Alexander Khritianovich
    Emeshin Konstantin Nikolaevich
    Stepurko Andrey Viktorovich
    Troshy Evgeniya Alexeevna
    Shishin Mikhail Yurevich
    Kine Akai Kimovich
    Gribkov Alexey Vladimirovich

    Anatoly Bannykh talked in detail about the events that took place on January 9th in the Sailugem mountain range in the Altai Republic.

    According to Bannykh, hunting preparations started 6 months before the trip. Bannykh named Kaimin as the main organizer of the hunting trip. In Bannykh’s opinion, Kaimin did have a hunting license. According to correspondence between SibEcocenter (an environmental NGO based in Novosibirsk) and Rosprirodnadzor (Russian Nature Oversight Agency), Kaimin could not possibly have had a license to hunt argali sheep, since no licenses were issued in 2008.

    Bannykh stated that he was not aware that they would be hunting argali sheep. He also said that he did not have any guns with him during the trip; he sold off all of his weapons 6 months ago.

    Approaching Mount Chyornaya they saw a herd of argali sheep. The helicopter landed and the hunters disembarked. Then the helicopter flew around the herd and chased the sheep towards the hunters. Two sheep were killed, one was wounded. The wounded sheep started retreating back uphill. The helicopter picked up the hunters and began to chase the wounded argali. The helicopter ascended along the mountain slope at a speed of 70 km per hour when it caught the mountain surface with its tail rotor and began rotating.

    Bannykh thinks that one of the engines shut down before the crash. In his opinion, it was Podprigora who managed to turn off the engine while the helicopter was falling; Podprigora was in the second pilot’s seat at the time. After the crash Bannykh was unconscious for some time. After coming back to his senses he and Kolbin started helping others. Having given first aid to survivors, Bannykh and Kolbin attempted to turn on the aircraft emergency locator. Although the emergency was in working condition, their attempt failed due to their ignorance of the system. Anatoly Bannykh described in detail the types of injuries incurred by him and others, he also talked about conditions at the crash site before they were discovered by an emergency crew.

    Anatoly Bannykh stated that he was deeply shocked by these events; he submitted a resignation letter from his post as a Vice Prime Minister of the Altai Republic.

    Bannykh also actively promoted the idea that the administration of the Altai Krai is intentionally blowing the scandal out of proportion perhaps even “putting money into the right hands.” («даже куда надо заносит деньги»). However, he did not answer direct questions as to who exactly was shooting at the argali sheep.

    Members of the Public Chamber asked Bannykh other questions not connected with the helicopter crash. For example, Viktor Dvornikov asked about his attitude towards the issue of gas pipeline construction through the Ukok plateau to China. Anatoly Bannykh responded that he considers the gas pipeline construction to be economically feasible and justifiable, and losses and possible negative consequences are not significant and incommensurate with economic benefits for the Republic. To the question of the Ukok Princess’ repatriation, Bannykh responded that Gazprom is doing everything possible to make it happen. Bannykh raised the point several times that the Government of the Altai Republic and Gazprom did a lot for the economy and the social welfare of the region. Members of the Public Chamber Derban, Sytepurko, and Troshy proposed initiating a counter media campaign for Bannykh’s support.

    Bannykh’s story has multiple contradictions. He confirmed that the illegal hunting of argali sheep—a species listed as endangered by both the Russian Federation and IUCN—took place. This act is a punishable offense according to the paragraph 2, article 258 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation. Bannykh also confirmed that a criminal case has not been yet initiated, and that the public thinks that such agency inaction is a gross violation of the article 144 of the Criminal Code. The situation is contradictory given the government’s declaration of its campaign against corruption and abuse of power by government officials.

    The Altai tragedy has gripped public attention for nearly two months. The lack of legal evaluation of the matter and appropriate measures from law enforcement have exacerbated the situation. We express sincere condolences to the families of the deceased. We also request a transparent, accurate investigation of the case of illegal hunting and the tragedy that happened. Disclosure of all circumstances, no matter how unpleasant and uncomfortable they may be, will guarantee that such tragic events will not happen again.

  6. More news, thanks to Jennifer Castner:

    Hi All!

    This is a bit of a strange article, although I suppose we should be glad that the WSJ/western media is covering the story at all at this point.

    It’s somewhat misleadingly written, I think and implies in the second paragraph that the gov’t’s “failure to enforce environmental laws” was more directly/immediately related to the crash than in actuality. In fact, as we know, the government (at all levels) has failed to even open an investigation into the poaching of endangered argali sheep.

    I suppose it’s a typical viewpoint for the Wall Street Journal to be so complimentary of Russia’s and Medvedev’s supposed “openness” in this case.




    APRIL 29, 2009

    Kremlin Shows Rare Openness on Crash


    MOSCOW — When photos surfaced of a January helicopter crash in Siberia that appeared to involve government officials on an illegal hunt, wildlife campaigners assumed the Kremlin would hush up the incident.

    Yet state-run media covered the story, a senior official in the region resigned, and federal prosecutors investigated. Earlier this month, they concluded the local government had failed to enforce environmental laws.

    The Kremlin’s unexpected openness about the accident handed a rare moment in the public eye to Russia’s fledgling green movement, which often struggles to be heard. But Kremlin-watchers say there’s more to it.

    President Dmitry Medvedev — anxious about rising social unrest in regions where the economic crisis is putting hundreds of thousands out of work — has used the incident as part of his effort to focus public anger on regional officials, analysts say.

    The Siberia crash site of a helicopter that was carrying government officials who were later found to be illegally shooting wild animals from the air. Seven died in the January crash.

    “It’s a signal to regional leaders,” says Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the independent Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. “At a time of financial crisis, the Kremlin is clamping down on these kind of activities.”

    In recent months, Mr. Medvedev has fired four regional governors — harsh even by the standards of his hard-line predecessor Vladimir Putin. Mr. Medvedev has devoted large chunks of his speeches on the economic crisis to chastising local officials.

    In February, Mr. Medvedev told a meeting of regional governors in Siberia that their slow response to the crisis was unacceptable. “This is a moment of truth for the corps of governors itself,” he said in comments broadcast on state TV.

    The Kremlin denies that it used the helicopter incident for any political aim. “There are thousands of other incidents like this that don’t cause such a stir,” says one Kremlin official. “This one did, for some reason.”

    The hunt — for endangered wild mountain sheep, or argali — came to light after the helicopter carrying eleven people, including crew, crashed into a snowy mountainside in Siberia on Jan. 9. Among the seven dead were two regional officials and two federal officials, including Alexander Kosopkin, President Medvedev’s representative in the lower house of parliament.

    Soon after, a local Internet news service published photographs showing the helicopter wreckage ringed by several sheep carcasses that wildlife campaigners said were clearly the endangered argali. A knife protruded from the haunch of one of the dead animals, and gun cases were visible nearby — a scene typical of helicopter hunting, in which the hunters shoot their prey, land and go up again.

    A few days later, state news agency RIA Novosti ran an article reporting suspicions that the accident had happened during an illegal hunting trip.

    The government-friendly newspaper Izvestia looked into the practice of VIP hunting, and business daily Kommersant, owned by a Kremlin-friendly oligarch, carried a story saying the hunters had “disgraced themselves.”

    At first, local officials denied the crash occurred during a hunt. Then they said it was a hunt, but that the party had licenses to kill goats and deer — though not from the air, which is illegal.

    The surviving pilot said the helicopter’s engines had failed, but investigators who examined the helicopter’s black boxes said that wasn’t true.

    An internal Federal Air Transport Agency telegram, leaked in the press and later confirmed by the agency, told a different story. It said the passengers had been shooting wild animals from the air. “As the helicopter went down to collect another shot animal, it hit the mountainside,” the telegram said.

    Demonstrators in Moscow and Siberia rallied to protest poaching. They directed their anger at local officials, rather than the late Mr. Kosopkin, perhaps hesitant to criticize someone who had been so close to the center of power. (Mr. Medvedev, in a short statement on the Kremlin’s Web site, called Mr. Kosopkin’s death “tragic,” making no reference to the hunting.)

    Anatoly Bannykh, deputy prime minister of the Altai Republic, the region where the accident took place — and a crash survivor — resigned. His spokeswoman said he had stepped down so as not to “discredit the authorities.”

    Federal prosecutors delved into the region’s compliance with environmental laws, and earlier this month said they had found numerous violations, including poaching. The investigators criticized local officials for failing to enforce the law, calling for some to be punished.

    Wildlife campaigners were ultimately disappointed with the government’s response. Siberian prosecutors have yet to open a criminal investigation into illegal hunting, restricting their probe to alleged breaches of flight safety.

    Many illegal helicopter hunts take place across Russia each year, says Igor Chestin, director of the Russian branch of the global World Wildlife Fund. He wants Mr. Medvedev to pronounce his moral judgment on the practice. “It would be a signal that the law is equal for everyone,” he says.

    A Kremlin official said the president couldn’t comment until the circumstances of the crash had been officially and definitively clarified.

    Write to Andrew Osborn at andrew.osborn@wsj.com

    Jennifer Castner
    Moss Beach, CA
    (h) +1.650.563.9098
    (c) +1.510.393.5525

    The Altai Project
    Strengthening communities and protecting nature in Altai

  7. http://www.rferl.org/Content/In_Russia_Lawmakers_Turned_Poachers_Rile_Public/1743058.html

    In Russia, Lawmakers Turned Poachers Rile Public

    May 30, 2009
    By Kevin O’Flynn

    MOSCOW (RFE/RL) — When the governor of the Irkutsk region died in a helicopter crash earlier this month, the question on many minds was whether he was illegally hunting bear at the time.

    Officials asserted Igor Yesipovsky was on a business trip when the private helicopter he was riding in crashed May 9, killing him and three others.

    But the incident bore a striking similarity to a poaching case earlier this year, raising suspicions that regional authorities are increasingly using helicopters to track and kill wild animals, including endangered species.

    The incidents have sparked outrage among local populations who see the authorities as putting themselves above the law.

    Aleksandr Kosopkin, the Kremlin’s envoy to the State Duma, was among seven people who died in January when the helicopter they were riding crashed into the side of a mountain in Russia’s Altai region.

    Dead Sheep

    Initially, the crash was seen as a simple accident. But photos from the site leaked to a local website told a different story: near the wreck of the helicopter lay the carcasses of two rare argali sheep, one with a knife stuck in its haunch.

    An investigation concluded Kosopkin and the other officials on board the Mi-171 were shooting the animals from the air.

    Oleg Mitvol, who served as the deputy head of the Natural Resource Ministry’s environmental agency at the time of the incident, said he was shocked by the hunting expedition.
    It is the complete ignorance by high-ranked bureaucrats of norms and rules that exist for ordinary citizens, but that do not exist for them

    “To destroy them from a helicopter with an automatic weapon is absolute blasphemy and vandalism. I can say that I understand the outrage of locals who saw this happen,” Mitvol said.

    “I think that the fact that this information was not kept quiet is important for the formation of our society.”

    Hunting from any moving vehicle is illegal in Russia. But a report from the Federal Air Transport Agency was unambiguous — the Altai hunting party had been using the helicopter to herd animals onto exposed terrain where they could be easily shot from the air.

    The report, together with the leaked photograph of the slain argali sheep — which are featured on Russia’s endangered species list — sparked outrage in Altai.

    Local journalists dubbed the scandal “Altai-gate.” The fact that the helicopter passengers included an Altai environmental officials only heightened the anger further.

    Hunters in Altai can obtain licenses to hunt more abundant animals like red deer and Siberian goats. But many hunters are drawn to the region’s natural expanses in search of more elusive game, undeterred by laws restricting the hunting of endangered animals.

    Aleksei Vaisman, who works for the Russian branch of the WWF wildlife-protection group, was among those fighting for the truth to be told about the Altai poaching case.

    Local Anger

    He says local residents were angry that officials were acting as though their positions of authority put them above the law: “There was huge indignation because all ordinary citizens saw it as a personal insult. It was a demonstrative breaking of the law by those who are supposed to keep it.”

    The outrage over the Altai case only heightened suspicions in the case of Irkutsk Governor Yesipovsky.

    Local leaders in far-flung parts of Russia often use helicopters as an essential mode of transport. But odd details about the trip stirred speculation the crash took place during a hunting expedition.

    Yesipovsky was traveling not in his official helicopter, but in an American-made Bell helicopter belonging to a businessman acquaintance. No official flight plan had been made before the flight, and the pilot had allegedly failed to undergo a mandatory medical examination.

    Some reports also suggested a hunting gun had been found in the wreckage following the crash.

    Police are investigating flight-safety violations, but have not opened a poaching case.

    The Natural Resource Ministry, in a statement on its website, suggested the heavy forestation at the site of the crash rules out the possibility of an airborne hunting expedition.

    But Mitvol and others still have questions.

    “The info that is there now partly confirms the hunting version. If it is proven that it was a bear hunt from a helicopter, especially one in a national park, then a criminal case has to be opened,” Mitvol said.

    Top Russian and Soviet officials have a history of illegal hunting.

    Former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin was accused of having bear cubs tied to a tree so he could shoot them with ease. There are also stories, perhaps apocryphal, of divers attaching fish to the hook of Nikita Khrushchev’s fishing rod.

    More recently, “Novaya gazeta” newspaper reported that officials were involved in an illegal helicopter bear hunt in the Far Eastern Kamchatka peninsula last October.

    Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Center in Moscow says illegal hunting expeditions are seen by many as a demonstration that top Russian officials feel themselves to be above the law.

    “I think there is a very serious problem which is becoming especially visible now because of the incidents in Altai and Irkutsk,” Petrov said.

    “It is the complete ignorance by high-ranked bureaucrats of norms and rules that exist for ordinary citizens, but that do not exist for them.”

  8. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/article/1016/42/380874.htm

    Illegal Hunters Fly Above the Law
    18 August 2009
    By Vladimir Ryzhkov
    There is a good view of Black Mountain from the road between the remote Kosh-Agach district and the town of Dzhezator in the Altai republic. It is the mountain on which a Mi-171 helicopter owned by Gazpromavia crashed on Jan. 9, claiming the lives of seven passengers, including the president’s envoy to the State Duma, Alexander Kosopkin.
    The mountain is accessible year-round by foot or car, and hiking and horse trails wind around it.

    Many people witnessed the crash or its aftermath, including search and rescue workers, border guards and local inhabitants. Four of the 11 members of the passengers and crew survived the tragedy, including co- pilot Maxim Kolbin and the man who many people believe organized the hunting trip, former Altai Deputy Governor Anatoly Bannykh. These people can provide detailed testimony of what happened.

    Various items were found and photographed at the crash site, including the carcasses of endangered argali sheep, weapons and empty cartridges. The helicopter’s black box was also recovered and decoded.
    Crash investigators fully reconstructed the circumstances of the tragedy. It is difficult to imagine a more open and shut criminal case than this one. However, there has been almost no progress in this case, which was taken up by the Investigative Committee only five months after the crash and after numerous protests and appeals to international environmental organizations.

    This “royal hunt” for endangered sheep was a premeditated violation of the law involving serious criminal culpability on the part of both the organizers and the participants. For now, the case is being investigated under Article 256 of the Criminal Code for “illegal hunting,” and Part 3, Article 263 for “violating the rules of safe operation of air transportation.”

    Permission for the flight was given under Code 21 for “aviation work.”
    The hunting party veered away from the approved flight path and the pilot knowingly provided false information to the dispatcher concerning the location of the helicopter. The participants were carrying unregistered firearms and none had hunting licenses for argali sheep — nor could they have had because the issuance of such licenses is prohibited by the law. Hunting from aircraft is also prohibited by Article 258 of the Criminal Code. As of today, the deaths of only four argali sheep have been proven, although people living in the area put the number as high as 18 to 28. They claim that the four crash survivors hid the evidence of their crime during the two days that rescuers were searching for them after the crash. Local residents also unanimously recount that the bodies of two unknown women were found on board the helicopter and were transported by rescuers to Barnaul, together with the sheep carcasses.

    The hunt took place as follows: The low-flying helicopter herded the sheep into one area where the hunters, using rifles and machine guns, shot them from the ground and the air. They finished off the sheep with knives and heaped the carcasses together. The crash was caused either by pilot error in flying too close to the ground, or because one of the hunters accidentally shot the helicopter.

    One of the hunt’s organizers, participants and crash victims was Viktor Kaymin, the chief Altai environmental official whose job it was to protect the animals that were slaughtered. The people of the Altai republic had long disliked Kaymin, whom they called the “main poacher”
    of the region.

    At the moment the crash occurred, the helicopter was not being flown by the craft’s commander but by Altai pilot Vladimir Podoprigor — who also perished in the accident — a practice that is strictly prohibited by aviation rules. What’s more, the craft was flying lower than legally permitted, and the required passenger list and description of the craft and its cargo were never submitted to the authorities.

    President Dmitry Medvedev, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the State Duma and the Federation Council have all remained silent on the case.
    State-controlled television did not report the details of the illegal hunt for endangered animals and focused instead on the technical details of the crash.

    There has been a growing practice in recent years of hunting from helicopters in the Altai Mountains, in violation of both federal and local laws. Altai residents told me that, prior to the January accident, groups of “highly placed” persons came to Altai almost weekly to shoot the defenseless animals. Not surprisingly, the populations of mountain goats, Siberian stags and bears that poachers shoot from helicopters have been rapidly declining. A number of species — including argali, snow leopards and others — are on the brink of extinction. According to well-known Altai community leader Akai Kynyev, who questioned dozens of witnesses and examined numerous documents, high-ranking federal and Altai regional officials, as well as famous performers and businessmen, are among those who have gone to Altai to hunt. Oleg Mitvol, a former federal environmental inspector, rightly pointed out that an entire infrastructure exists in Altai for organizing illegal hunts. In fact, a similar situation also exists in other regions rich in animal life. On May 10, Irkutsk Governor Igor Esipovsky was allegedly illegally hunting bear from a helicopter when it crashed. There were also recent illegal hunting scandals at wildlife preserves in the western Caucasus and in the Tver region. In Astrakhan, local fisherman told me that the main poachers were regional law enforcement officials. Across the country, government officials and wealthy individuals are shooting countless rare animals, aided and abetted by the very government agencies charged with protecting them. And in every case, the country’s political leaders have maintained silence.

    The people of Altai not only distrust but even loathe the republic’s authorities, who were appointed by Moscow without taking local opinion into consideration. The locals accuse Governor Alexander Berdnikov and his colleagues of organizing and attempting to cover up illegal “royal hunts,” corruption, the redistribution of property for personal gain, a lack of patriotism, and of preying upon and plundering the region.

    Nobody from Altai seriously believes that high-ranking poachers will be punished or that illegal hunting from helicopters will be stopped.
    The authorities installed by Moscow will never have to answer to the people, or to the law. That is how the people of this region perceive Putin’s “power vertical.”

    Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

  9. Moscow Times opinion piece, Altai helicopter crash


    When Myths Eclipse Reality
    09 September 2009
    By Yulia Latynina
    In an authoritarian society, public opinion surveys are meaningless.
    The problem isn’t so much that survey data are falsified. It’s that the results themselves do not provide an accurate reflection of reality — just as a thermometer placed outside the kitchen window cannot give you the temperature indoors.

    As soon as word of the Sayano-Shushenskaya hydroelectric plant accident became known to residents who lived downriver from the dam, most relocated immediately to higher ground. If you were to ask those people in a poll if they have faith in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, they would surely answer positively. They are convinced that Putin brought stability to Russia, restored the power vertical and saved our citizens in South Ossetia from Georgian genocide.

    It is not that respondents lie when surveys ask for their opinions.
    But consciously they believe one thing, and subconsciously quite another. Consciously, they love Putin, but subconsciously they know that if the dam had burst and the Yenisei River had swept them all away, Putin, if asked by the media what had happened to the victims, would not hesitate to quip, “They sank” — just as he did in 2000 when U.S. television journalist Larry King asked Putin what happened to the Kursk submarine.

    The Sayano-Shushenskaya tragedy showed how a myth can eclipse reality.
    Although Spanish lord Cesare Borgia probably never slept with his sister, he did commit many other heinous offenses, so it was natural that the Italians of the 16th century tacked the incest charges onto all the other ones. After former Federal Security Service officer Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned in London, the British press started pointing their fingers at the Kremlin for virtually anyone who turned up dead on London streets.

    On Jan. 9, a helicopter crashed during an illegal hunt for endangered sheep in the Altai mountains. The president’s envoy to the State Duma, Alexander Kosopkin died in the crash. Local residents’ outrage at similar hunting expeditions involving drunk public figures shooting rare animals from helicopters reached a boiling point. As a result, they developed a myth around the January accident. That version of the story holds that the hunters killed 28 endangered argali sheep and that two prostitutes were among those killed when the helicopter went down, but that their bodies where quickly shuttled away to hush up the incident. The people living in the nearby town of Kosh-Agach not only believe it, but each claims that a brother, friend or other close acquaintance witnessed the events with his own eyes.

    Something similar happened following the recent accident at the Sayano- Shushenskaya plant. On Aug. 17, rescue workers displayed superhuman effort in risking their lives to save two workers who had survived in an air pocket amid the submerged rubble and alerted searchers by banging a wrench against a pipe. But by Aug. 19, nobody was talking about the brave exploits of the rescue workers. Instead, rumors were circulating that workers were still trapped in the air pockets but the authorities had called off the search.

    Myths always eclipse reality. Napoleon will often be remembered for his visit to plague-stricken troops at their barracks in Jaffa — even though it never happened. Our authorities are accused of turning their backs on men trapped in underwater air pockets, and even the brave, selfless feats of the rescuers cannot change that perception.

    Yulia Latynina hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

  10. Illegal Hunting Case Reopened After Huff


    12 November 2009
    By Maria Antonova
    Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin reopened an
    investigation Wednesday into whether charges should be filed against
    survivors of a party of government officials who were illegally
    hunting endangered sheep when their helicopter crashed in January.

    Bastrykin’s announcement came as an outcry grew over his decision to
    quietly close the investigation in August and — embarrassingly — just
    a day after his committee awarded Altai Governor Alexander Berdnikov,
    whose deputy is a suspect in the case, with a medal for cooperating
    with investigators.

    The Investigative Committee first opened an investigation into the
    illegal hunt of argali sheep in the Altai republic in April, about
    three months after the crash of the helicopter carrying Altai Deputy
    Governor Anatoly Bannykh and the president’s envoy to the State Duma,
    Alexander Kosopkin. While Bannykh was among the four survivors,
    Kosopkin was one of seven people who died in the crash.

    The investigation was closed in August because “all the people who can
    be charged in this case … died during the crash,” while the survivors,
    including Bannykh, “did not take any actions to pursue or shoot the
    animals,” Bastrykin said in a written statement sent to the Altai
    legislature after local lawmakers asked him for an update on the
    investigation in September.

    The statement, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times, lists
    five deceased people as suspects of illegal hunting by helicopter, is
    dated Oct. 13 and is signed by Bastrykin himself.

    The statement only surfaced last weekend, inciting public outrage over
    Bastrykin’s decision to blame only the dead for breaking the law.

    Moreover, Berdnikov, the Altai governor who also has been implicated
    in the hunting trip by national media, received a medal from the
    Investigative Committee on Tuesday during Police Day celebrations. The
    medal, “For Cooperation,” was presented to Berdnikov by Bastrykin’s
    deputy Andrei Mushatov for Berdnikov’s “cooperation in the effective
    work of investigators,” according to a statement on the regional
    government’s official web site.

    On Wednesday, the Investigative Committee suddenly showed interest in
    the case again, with Bastrykin ordering “procedural control
    authorities to closely look at the case’s materials … and check the
    completeness of the investigation,” according to a statement posted on
    the committee’s web site.

    In response to a phone inquiry of what this means and whether the case
    had been reopened, a spokeswoman refused to comment and hung up.

    A few hours later, the committee posted a statement on the web site
    saying Bastrykin had reopened the case.

    Environmentalists, whose efforts helped prompt investigators to open a
    criminal case in the first place, criticized Bastrykin’s explanation
    to Altai lawmakers that the surviving passengers were not part of the
    hunt. “Kosopkin and Bannykh were the two most highly placed officials
    on the helicopter, and the hunt never would have happened if they had
    opposed pursuing the animals,” said Alexei Vaisman, a researcher with
    the World Wildlife Fund.

    But reopening the case at the height of a public outcry smacks of a
    public relations stunt, said security analyst Andrei Soldatov. “They
    are likely to close the case again when the situation quiets down
    again, like they did after reopening the case of Shchekochikhin,”
    Soldatov said, referring to the mysterious death of Novaya Gazeta
    reporter and State Duma Deputy Yury Shchekochikhin in 2003.

    Alexei Gribkov, an environmentalist from Barnaul in the neighboring
    Altai region, said a thorough investigation was unlikely because it
    would probably “unravel many nasty details implicating people from
    beyond the region, like Kosopkin’s superiors.”

    He said it was still not clear who had financed the hunt in the
    Gazpromavia-owned helicopter. “For us, it is very important to set a
    precedent with this … hunt because it was certainly not the first
    incident,” he said by telephone.

    Berdnikov, whose term expires in January, flew to Moscow on Wednesday
    to attend President Dmitry Medvedev’s state-of-the nation address
    Thursday. He was unavailable for comment, said a woman who answered
    the phone at Altai’s representative office in Moscow.

  11. http://www.rferl.org/content/blog/1923399.html

    Gazprom In The Mountains

    No one has been charged or tried in connection with this well-
    documented case of illegal poaching.

    January 07, 2010
    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 –

    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 incidenton 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 Investigations 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 –

    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

    “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

    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.”

    — Robert Coalson

  12. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/poaching-the-law/397856.html

    Poaching the Law

    21 January 2010
    By Vladimir Ryzhkov

    A year ago, on Jan. 9, 2009, Alexander Berdnikov, governor of the Altai republic, escorted a group of poachers that included presidential envoy to the State Duma Alexander Kosopkin and Altai Deputy Governor Anatoly Bannykh on a hunting trip. The “hunters”
    onboard the Mi-171 helicopter owned by Gazpromavia flew in the direction of the Mongolian border in the Kosh-Agach district of the Altai republic. At about noon, as the helicopter descended dangerously close to the slopes of Black Mountain in order to retrieve the carcasses of animals that the men had shot from the air, the spinning blades struck the ground, causing the craft to crash. Seven people died in the accident, including Kosopkin and Viktor Kaimin, who, strangely enough, headed the committee in charge of protecting the republic’s wildlife and for many years organized hunting parties for top officials. The poachers were shooting endangered argali sheep with automatic weapons from the helicopter — a criminal offense in Russia.
    What did Berdnikov know about this poaching incident? He accompanied all members of the hunting trip to the Tursib recreational center on the banks of the Katun River the night before the expedition.
    (Berdnikov had reportedly planned to join his colleagues and friends on the ill-fated helicopter hunt, but he got sick the night before.) Given his direct contact with the participants who were armed with weapons, Berdnikov had to have known that they were on a poaching expedition and not simply “observing nature.” Moreover, since poaching trips were a weekly event in the republic, it is hard to imagine that this illegal activity could have gone on for so long without the knowledge — and perhaps consent — of the governor. At the very least, Berdnikov had direct responsibility to make sure that the poaching law was not being violated in Altai.

    The poaching by high-ranking government officials evoked a strong public response. The World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace sent appeals to the prosecutor general demanding that a separate criminal case be opened against those who had illegally hunted the argali sheep. In February, the Association of Native and Minority Communities of the Kosh-Agach district appealed to President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to make sure that this case would be thoroughly investigated and the guilty parties prosecuted in accordance with the law. Local residents gathered in the city of Gorno- Altaisk on Feb. 22 to protest the incident. Several rallies were also held in Moscow.

    From the very beginning, law enforcement agencies were reluctant to investigate the scandal. On April 21, however, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case concerning the illegal hunt, citing Article 256 of the Criminal Code. That was combined with the additional charge of aircraft safety violations. But after that, we heard nothing more about the case.

    Then, on Nov. 6, another scandal erupted. In answer to an official inquiry sent by deputies from the Altai’s legislature, Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin revealed that the committee’s criminal case had actually been closed Aug. 11 because “all of the individuals who might have been charged with criminal responsibility in this criminal case … died as a result of the helicopter crash.”
    Thus, according to the investigative committee’s official version, there was nobody directly involved in the case who were still alive to file charges against.

    This is blatantly false. Why has not a single government official — including Berdnikov and Bannykh, who the media has linked to a private company that paid for the rental of the helicopter that crashed on Jan. 9 — been investigated and charged with criminal negligence?

    After the poaching case was closed, the Altai legislature filed another request to have the case investigated. In response, the Investigative Committee, looking like the Keystone Cops, was forced to reopen the criminal case on Nov. 11. But Altai residents have little hope left that justice will be done. Natural Resources and Environment Minister Yury Trutnev believes that the fact that the criminal case was delayed and then closed and that key facts in the case were ignored points to a “coordinated cover-up.”

    Perhaps the strongest evidence against the likelihood that a criminal case will be brought against the poachers is that on Jan. 12 the Altai legislature confirmed Berdnikov to a new term as governor. This was the same legislature that lodged the complaint in the fall against Berdnikov, asking the Investigative Committee to look into allegations of complicity in the poaching incident. In the fall, the legislature filed a request that Berdnikov be investigated for alleged abuses because the deputies thought that he was a political corpse. Then, to the deputies’ and many others’ surprise, Medvedev in late December nominated Berdnikov for a second term — after which the deputies quickly changed their stance on Berdnikov and confirmed his nomination by an overwhelming 33-6 vote.

    On Wednesday, Berdnikov was sworn into office for his second term.
    What an excellent opportunity to celebrate Medvedev’s success in his campaign against corruption and legal nihilism. It is also a good opportunity to remember Putin’s motive in canceling direct gubernatorial elections in 2004 — to kick out all of the rotten, corrupt governors and replace them with the country’s best, brightest and, most important, honest and law-abiding public officials he could find. On Feb. 4, we can celebrate again, when Sergei Darkin, who has been linked to corruption, will be inaugurated for his second term as the appointed governor of the Primorye region.

    Berdnikov and Darkin are two shining examples of Medvedev’s “Golden 100” presidential reserve. One tried-and-true method of guaranteeing that governors remain loyal to the Kremlin is to appoint people who have a large dossier filled with criminal allegations. One false step by a governor against the Kremlin, and a criminal case is initiated.
    Is this how Medvedev plans to modernize Russia’s political institutions and fight legal nihilism?

    Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy radio.

  13. http://www.gorno-altaisk.info/news/7928
    5 May 2010
    “Investigation of the Mi-171 [helicopter] crash is extended by one month”

    “The Western-Siberian Transportation Investigation Agency has extended investigations of the Mi-171 helicopter crash that occurred … in January 2009 by another month…. The investigation phase has been extended in part because investigators still need to conduct a number of investigative actions, according to RIA Novosti Agency. Investigators still need to make an additional inspection of the crash site and question a number of people. Additionally, earlier testing has not yet been completed. The investigation was originally due to be
    completed by May 5.”

  14. Two passengers from the Altai 2009 helicopter crash are listed as wanted

    22 Jun 2010


    Three bureaucrats who survived the Altai helicopter crash are accused of poaching

    Three of the four survivors of the Mi-171 helicopter disaster that occurred in Altai in January of last year have been listed as wanted for illegal hunting. As announced on Tuesday by Vladimir Markin, the federal Prosecutor’s Investigative Committee’s representative, that Boris Belinsky, general director of Ineko, was accused of violating Article 258 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code, a crime punishable by a maximum of two years in prison and job termination.

    As regards the other two – Anatoly Bannykh, the former vice-chair of the Republic of Altai government, and Nikolai Karpanov, assistant director of the Institute of Economics and Law – decisions were announced accusing them of illegal hunting as well, but due to the fact that these individuals are avoiding investigation, they have been listed on the federal Wanted List,” said Markin.

    Markin added that the investigation continues. He reiterated that the criminal case of the helicopter crash was terminated and then renewed due to a decision made by Aleksandr Bastyrkin, head of the Prosecutor’s Investigative Committee (PIC).

    The Mi-171 (a modified Mi-8) catastrophe occurred on January 9, 2009. A helicopter owned by Gazpromavia crashed in a mountainous area in Altai. Of the eleven people on board, seven died, including Aleksandr Kosopkin, the President’s Authorized Representative to the State Duma, and Viktor Kaimin, head of the Committee for the Protection of Fauna in Altai.

    Four people survived, including Maksim Kolbin, the second pilot. He does not face any accusations, as he did not directly participate in the illegal hunting.

    According to experts, faulty piloting was the reason for the crash. “Hunting for wild animals without permission during the course of a flight” led to the helicopter crash.

    This case has garnered a great deal of community interest, mostly because photographs of animals killed by gunshots surrounded by pieces of the helicopter were published on the internet after the crash. Experts say that those animals were Altai argali mountain sheep (or arkhar), an animal listed in the Russian and international Red Books. No hunting of these animals is permitted whatsoever.

    A criminal case under Article 263 (Violation of flight safety rules while operating air transport resulting in the death of two or more people) of the Russian Criminal Code was initiated following the helicopter crash.

    In August 2009, that criminal case was closed upon the death of the possible suspects.

    In September 2009, the “Fo r Our Altai” Deputies’ Association of the Altai Republic’s Legislature (El Kurultai) appealed to Aleksandr Bastyrkin, the director of the Russian Prosecutor’s Investigative Committee, requesting an update on the criminal investigation of the helicopter crash.

    Due to immense public interest in the event, its serious repercussions, and the fact that Altai Republic leadership was involved, Republic deputies asked the PIC to provide information on the results of the investigation and to indicate the possible crimes committed, names of the accused, organizer of the flight and its payment source, the amount of loss (including the cost of the helicopter and search/rescue operations).

    In November [2009], the investigation into the Altai helicopter crash was restarted, and in March 2010 additional investigation was authorized.

  15. http://www.themoscowtimes.com/opinion/article/killing-endangered-species-and-democracy/412024

    Killing Endangered Species and Democracy

    10 August 2010

    By Vladimir Ryzhkov

    Behind President Dmitry Medvedev’s superficial and meaningless words of “modernization” and “freedom is better than a lack of freedom,” Russia continues its repression of opposition members, human rights activists and independent journalists. A good example of how Medvedev’s “modernization and freedom” is flourishing can be found in the republic of Altai, a picturesque, mountainous region in West Siberia. Criminal charges were filed by Altai Governor Alexander Berdnikov against Sergei Mikhailov, editor-in-chief of the local Listok newspaper, for its critical articles against Berdnikov and other bureaucrats in his administration.

    Berdnikov has sued Listok twice. In the first case, Berdnikov was offended when the newspaper ran a commentary describing his administration as a “snake pit.” The prosecutor found legal grounds for Berdnikov’s accusation and opened a criminal case against Mikhailov under Article 130 of the Criminal Code for “insulting the
    honor and dignity of another person when it is expressed in indecent form.” If convicted, Mikhailov could face a maximum sentence of a year in prison.

    On May 13, investigators from the Altai prosecutor’s office raided Mikhailov’s apartment and the offices of Listok.

    Berdnikov brought a second criminal case against Mikhailov because of an article that was published in Listok in July 2009 that referred to him as an alcoholic. This time, Berdnikov’s sued Mikhailov for slander. To convict Mikhailov of this charge, the prosecutor must
    prove that he disseminated “knowingly false information” about Berdnikov’s alcohol problem. If convicted on these charges, he faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

    On March 14, Mikhailov won a seat in the city legislature from a district of Gorno-Altai, the republic’s capital city. According to law, only the head of the investigative department of the
    prosecutor’s office has the authority to open a criminal case against a deputy, which was dutifully done.

    Mikhailov and Listok are vivid testaments to the courageous free speech that has come under heavy fire in Russia. Despite pressure and threats from criminal and governmental structures, Listok investigates and publicizes information about corruption and abuses of
    power by local bureaucrats at all levels.

    Mikhailov played a key role in one of the biggest scandals in 2009, exposing Altai officials who illegally hunted endangered argali sheep from helicopters in the Altai mountains. Listok has also provided in- depth coverage on the construction of a mysterious new government residence and the 21-kilometer road leading to it thathas been allocated 3 billion rubles ($100.7 million) from the federal budget.

    Listok is the only newspaper in Altai that remains outside the control of the republic’s authorities. It offers the kind of investigative journalism that is essential for a democracy and civil society to function as a check and balance on public officials. The newspaper also provides a platform for the opposition and citizens who are fed up with the blatant abuse of power by local officials.

    But it does not look like Berdnikov and his friends have to worry too much about any checks and balances. They have a lot of powerful friends in Moscow, who love to visit Altai on long weekends, holidays and summer vacations. During the day, they enjoy “VIP hunting”
    excursions, taking particular delight in killing endangered species indigenous to Altai. At night, they wine and dine at exclusive VIP lodges. What a wonderful life. They certainly don’t want Mikhailov and his newspaper to spoil the fun.

    Translation courtesy of Jennifer Castner.

  16. http://www.gorno-altaisk.info/news/9107

    Kosh-Agach raion court to hear argali hunting case
    2 Aug 2010

    After the accused have had a chance to acquaint themselves with the facts of the criminal argali poaching case from January 2009, the case will be handed over to the Kosh-Agach raion court in Altai Republic for hearings. The Tomsk-based Gazpromavia Mi-171 helicopter crashed in this region while its passengers were hunting for Altaian mountain sheep.

    According to those following the case, “It will take more than a month to complete all of the judicial process,” so the case will not reach the court before September 2010.

    Translation courtesy of Jennifer Castner.

  17. http://altapress.ru/story/57170/?viewcomments=1#opinionsheap

    5 Oct 2010

    Investigation of the case of the illegally hunting bureaucrats in Altai has been extended until January 2011

    Altapress.ru recently learned that the investigative agencies extended the investigation period until Jan 5, 2011 in the case of the bureaucrats for illegally hunting Red Book species from an Mi-171 helicopter in Kosh-Agach Rayon in Altai Republic.
    As of now the accused (Anatoly Bannykh, Nikolai Kapranov, and Boris Belinsky) and their lawyers are acquainting themselves with the case materials and the law on illegal hunting (Criminal Code chapter 2, article 258). After that the case will be sent on to the prosecutor and then to court.

    Translation courtesy of Jennifer Castner, The Altai Project.

  18. Russian officials cleared of poaching charges

    23 May 2011
    A court in southern Siberia’s Altai Republic on Monday acquitted three high-ranking officials whose hunting of endangered animals led to a deadly helicopter crash two years ago.

    Judge Nikolai Lubenitsky said the prosecution had failed to prove the defendants’ guilt. He also said all the three men could claim compensation for damages sustained as a result of the prosecution.

    A Mi-17 helicopter carrying government officials crashed near Altai’s Chernaya mountain in January 2009, killing seven people, including the Russian president’s envoy to the State Duma, Alexander Kosopkin, and a federal environmental official.

    It was subsequently alleged that the officials had been hunting endangered mountain sheep.

    Four people survived the crash, including the republic’s deputy prime minister, Anatoly Bannykh, who resigned after the crash; deputy head of the Institute of Economics and Law Nikolai Kapranov, and State Duma official and businessman Boris Belinsky.

    The three officials were charged with illegal hunting and faced up to two years in prison if found guilty.

    KOSH-AGACH (Altai Republic), May 23 (RIA Novosti)

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.