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Poaching the Law

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 Altais legislature, Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin revealed that the committees 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 committees 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 Medvedevs success in his campaign against corruption and legal nihilism. It is also a good opportunity to remember Putins motive in canceling direct gubernatorial elections in 2004 to kick out all of the rotten, corrupt governors and replace them with the countrys 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 Medvedevs 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 Russias 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.

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