Altaigate. The Final Chapter. (Novaya Gazeta article) [2017] Altaigate. The Final Chapter

Altai argali sheep skulls (photo by J. Gibbs)By Elena Racheva
16 Feb 2017

A helicopter carrying Anatoly Bannykh, well-known organizer of hunting trips for wealthy government officials, has crashed into Lake Teletskoye. This is his second catastrophe. The first cost Bannykh the vice-premier’s seat. Today’s crash, it seems, will have cost much more.

The Ministry of Emergency Affairs continues its search for the Robinson R-66 helicopter that crashed into Lake Teletskoye in Altai Republic. The helicopter crashed last Sunday (12 Feb), carrying well-know Altai businessman Anatoly Bannykh, general director of the Moscow-based Heliclub helicopter company Maria Kozintsev, Heliclub pilot Dmitry Rakitsky, his wife Elena Rakitskaya, and basejumper Gleb Vorevodin. To date, the only body recovered was presumed to be that of Elena Rakitskaya. There is little hope of any of the other passengers having survived.

The cause of the incident is described as poor visibility and pilot error: the helicopter, which was not equipped for night flights, took off around 8:00 pm without filing a flight plan with the authorities. A witness to the crash says that the helicopter’s tail entered the lake and caused it to crash into the water.

It is known that Anatoly Bannykh (nicknamed “Toliban”) was the helicopter owner and organizer of the flight, and, seemingly, master of the entire region. In the past, he has owned half of the region’s mass media companies, many large businesses in neighboring Altai Krai, and organized illegal hunts for high ranking bureaucrats for many years in Altai.

The helicopter crash into Lake Teletskoye is Toliban’s second. In 2009, a helicopter belonging to Bannykh crashed into the Altai Mountains, shaking the entire country. This first crash cost him the job of vice-governor. This crash probably cost him his life.

On 9 January 2009, an Mi-171 helicopter crashed in the mountains in a protected area in Kosh-Agach District in Altai Republic. 7 people died, including the President’s Authorized Representative to the State Duma, Aleksandr Kosopkin. The investigation revealed that the helicopter crashed into the mountainside when it attempted to hoverin order to pull aboard the bodies of protected species shot from aboard the helicopter – argali sheep. Formal accusations of poaching did not arise immediately, and even after the media began publishing photographs of the killed sheep, the authorities in Altai continued to assert that the hunt was legal. Later, 3 of the survivors, including Anatoly Bannykh, were accused of poaching. The court first declared them guilty, and then overturned the conviction. In March 2009, Bannykh confessed at a meeting of the Altai Krai Public Commission that they had been specifically hunting argali and then resigned his position. In December 2011, the case was closed when the statute of limitations expired.

At that time, staff from local nature reserves told Novaya Gazeta reporters (#6, 23 January 2009), that helicopter hunting by the Moscow political elite was common practice and that hunting in Altai Republic was a means of lobbying the interests of local government officials at the highest level. For example, one of the passengers of the crashed Mi-171 told Novaya Gazeta that the evening before the crash, Aleksandr Berdnikov, governor of Altai Republic, had approached Authorized Representative Aleksandr Kosopkin. Kosopkin did not want to meet with him, saying “Berdnikov will ask for money, but I came here to relax.”

The case of the killed argali sheep turned into a gigantic “Altaigate”: demonstrations took place in Moscow and Barnaul against hunting by government officials and implausible rumors floated around Altai Republic that Berdnikov’s helicopter visited the crash site to carry away weapons and the bodies of prostitutes said to be on board and that there were more than 20 dead sheep (in reality, there were 3)… Stories of dozens more poaching incidents emerged. Had it not been for the helicopter’s crash, none of them would ever have become public information. Moreover, Altaigate did not happen by accident: Yuri Purgin, general director of the Barnaul Altapress independent publishing house, told Novaya Gazeta that photographs of the killed sheep were delivered to the publisher by people who had worked at the crash site, saying they did not want to conceal poaching. Later, the governor of Altai Krai, Aleksandr Karlin, used the accusation of Bannykh’s poaching in his long-term conflict with the businessman. Sergei Mikhailov, editor in chief of the Gorno-Altaisk Listok newspaper, believes that Bannykh sold off the majority of his businesses in Altai Krai and relocated to Moscow as a result of the conflict.

Bannykh’s business empire got underway in the 1990s. During Russia’s privatization period, he made large-scale purchases of shares of Altai businesses. Sergei Andreichuk, director of the Siberian anti-corruption center Transparency International, recalls that in one interview in the 1990s, Bannykh could not recall how many stock portfolios and businesses he owned: “He had dozens of businesses ranging from industry and energy to hunting, tourism, and farming.”

It is almost impossible to estimate scale of Bannykh’s business today: when Toliban became vice-premier of Altai Republic in 2008, he signed over all shares to his inner circle. According to Andreichuk, Transparency International attempted to find a business officially belonging to Bannykh, but discovered that all of them had been registered to his relatives and colleagues.

Andreichuk reports that Bannykh retains business assets in energy (including Barnaul Network Company), several media companies (he was forced to sell off the majority of these when he lost his conflict with Governor Karlin), and businesses related to small aviation, tourism, and hunting.

In Altai Republic, the former vice-premier purchased the Samysh resort (after purchasing it, he renamed it “Altai Village”) at the ranger station of the same name on Lake Teletskoye. This is where Bannykh’s guests stayed before becoming passengers on the crashed Robinson helicopter. Sergei Mikhailov is confident that it was specifically Bannykh that initiated the establishment of Sailyugemsky National Park protected area. This high elevation region is known for having the largest population of snow leopards in Russia as well as tremendous biodiversity. Bannykh’s protégé Sergei Pishchulin became director of the park – it was he who was the director and founder of the open shareholder company Altai-Avia that owned the crashed Robinson helicopter. Andreichuk believes that Altai-Avia was also controlled by Toliban.

“What has Bannykh been up to in recent years? Well, in short, he has been selling Altai,” says Mikhailov. “He brought high-ranking guests there, often organizing hunts. When he created Sailyugem National park, he blocked off its lands from the local population. As a result, lands where all hunting is forbidden regularly saw people carrying weaponry in helicopters and riding snowmobiles.”

Following the 2009 catastrophe, Bannykh jokingly named himself the “Meritorious Poacher of Siberia”. Of course, VIP-hunts were not organized for money but rather for facilitating connections. “In terms of the overall size of Bannykh’s empire, these trips brought in scant money and were more likely a hobby that made for a good time with the right people,” believes Andreichuk. “According to our sources, Bannykh was a fixer for Berdnikov, governor of Altai Republic. He lobbied the governor’s interests and served as a connection between him and Moscow,” asserts Mikhailov. “It is interesting to consider the security of Berdnikov’s position now.”

It is perhaps surprising, but the 2009 crash did little damage (aside from his voluntary resignation) to Bannykh’s reputation. The general public knew him but poorly, and his inner circle did not consider poaching a sin. Toliban experienced almost no loss as a result of the first catastrophe. But he also learned no lessons.


Translation by Jennifer Castner.