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The $119M Road to a Governorship

President Dmitry Medvedev nominated Alexander Berdnikov to serve a second term as governor of the Altai republic. On Tuesday, as expected, the Altai local legislature confirmed Medvedev’s nomination by a large 33-6 margin.

It is believed that Berdnikov, a former federal inspector, owes his post to Anatoly Bannykh, a successful businessman. Bannykh has close ties to federal officials for whom he organized deluxe vacations to Altai. When Medvedev vacationed there, Bannykh introduced him to Berdnikov, after which Berdnikov was appointed governor of the republic.

Berdnikov is best known for his involvement in the illegal hunt of endangered argali sheep from a helicopter that crashed on Jan. 9, 2009. Among those on board were Alexander Kosopkin, the presidential envoy to the State Duma; Viktor Kaimin, the Altai republic’s top official charged with protecting the region’s wildlife; and Bannykh, himself an avid hunter nicknamed the “gray cardinal” of the republic.

Only 300 argali sheep are known to be living in region. This crash shows how our top bureaucrats love to hunt endangered animals from helicopters. Kosopkin and Kaiman stood in an open helicopter as it flew low over the treeless mountainside. The men fired automatic weapons at the sheep, but their fun came to an abrupt end when one of the sloshed men on board reportedly slipped and fired his gun,  hitting either the pilot or the instrument panel.

As the helicopter fell to the ground, the men standing in the open hatch were caught under the spinning blades, causing Kosopkin to be sliced into pieces in midair. Two passengers survived the crash but suffered severe frostbite amid temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius. Bannykh, who had apparently been let out of the helicopter at some point before the crash to guide the hunt from the ground, was only slightly injured.

Berdnikov had not joined the hunting party because he was relaxing in a banya that day. The next morning, Berdnikov claimed that he had no knowledge of where the helicopter had been flying. This is particularly appalling because every single meter of the area where the few hundred argali sheep roam is known to Altai residents.

While Berdnikov’s buddies were struggling for their lives in bitterly cold temperatures,  Berdnikov was busy thinking of how to wash his hands of the vile affair.

The logical question is: Why would Medvedev want to nominate Berdnikov for a second gubernatorial term?

The answer is very simple. On Dec. 24, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the construction of a 22-kilometer road near the Ursul River in the Altai republic. This project will cost 3.5 billion rubles ($119 million) to complete. The road will lead to the residence of a high-ranking official, and that residence will be located in a nature reserve that was established after Putin circled the area in a helicopter during a visit to Altai.

The moral of the story is clear: If our national leader decides to build an elaborate country home in Altai, then the Altai governor can basically do anything that he wants.

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

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