Andrew Osborn








Kremlin Shows Rare Openness on Crash

The Wall Street Journal, 29th April 2009 11:27

By Andrew Osborn

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.

"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.