Incomprehensible ‘unsinkability’. Perpetual Head of Altai Republic to run for yet another term?
Helicopter crashes killing VIP poachers. Failed flagship tourism project worth billions of rubles. Vote-buying with a bottle of vodka. Arrests of corrupt associates. Compromising media publications... None of these high-profile scandals could undermine the stand of Aleksander Berdnikov, perpetual Head of the Altai Republic for the last 12 years. Residents of the region gave up any hope of getting rid of him. But as of a sudden, they saw a break in the clouds – a commission has been dispatched from Moscow to carry out a large-scale audit. Political experts immediately started discussing possible reshuffles in the regional government. What questions were asked to the top republican officials by the Moscow auditors? What questions still have to be asked?
On May 14–25, 2018, the Prosecutor General’s Office has carried out a major audit of top functionaries and law enforcement commanders of the Altai Republic. According to Aleksander Kurennoy, an official representative of the watchdog authority, more than 20 operatives of the Prosecutor General’s Office under the command of Vladimir Malinovsky, Deputy Prosecutor General of the Russian Federation, were working in Gorno-Altaysk. Ex-Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov, being well aware of work practices of the federal watchdog agency, has noted on May 25 that “this was a truly large-scale audit” for such a small region. Political expert Rostislav Turovsky has linked it with the anti-corruption policy pursued by the federal authorities in the last few years and suggested that this audit may undermine the stand of regional head Aleksander Berdnikov. Mikhail Vinogradov, President of St. Petersburg Politics Fund, also estimates the prospects of Berdnikov very skeptically.
Aleksander Berdnikov, Head of the Altai Republic
No official results of the audit were published so far. However, sources in the regional law enforcement structures, including Nikolai Mylitsin, Prosecutor of the Altai Republic, believe that the situation with lands earlier belonging to the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences (RAAS) was of utmost interest for the inspectors. The official owner of these lands was Chuiskoe Federal State Unitary Enterprise established by the RAAS.
The lands belonging to Chuiskoe were transferred to the Altai Republic in September 2010 as per request of regional head Aleksander Berdnikov. The request had the following reasoning: the lands were abandoned, while the region intended to use those for agriculture and recreation development. Dmitry Medvedev, then-President of Russia, has endorsed the decision to transfer the lands on February 2, 2010. A year later, the Prosecutor General’s Office, jointly with the Control Directorate of the Presidential Executive Office, has carried out an inquest and found out that after becoming aware of the forthcoming transfer, the territorial branch of the Federal Agency for State Property Management (Rosimushestvo) started alienating the most marketable lands from the federal state unitary enterprise. According to Konstantin Chuichenko, Head of the Presidential Control Directorate, “after April 5, 2015, the RAAS has registered a release of perpetual free use rights to 39 lots with a total area of more than 200 ha located mostly on the Katun River bank. The majority of these lands were intended to be later leased to third parties”. Based on the inquest results, three criminal cases were instituted against officials of the territorial branch of Rosimushestvo for neglect of duty, while Aleksander Tyukhtenev, head of the territorial branch, was dismissed by an order of Medvedev. In March 2013, the President has personally instructed Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika to monitor the investigation of these cases: “Please take this under control and give them a hard time”. However, results of the investigation were never disclosed to the public.
Dismissed Aleksander Tyukhtenev, ex-Head of the Interregional Office of Rosimushestvo in the Altai krai and Altai Republic
Medvedev has interpreted the violations committed during the transfer of lands from Chuiskoe Federal State Unitary Enterprise to the Altai Republic as “a clear manipulation of governmental powers for personal gain”. Yuri Petrov, Head of the Federal Agency for State Property Management, has personally promised the President that all the lands belonging to Chuiskoe will be transferred as intended. As a result, the Altai Republic has received the lands with a total area of 11.8 thousand ha. Then the new owners started pulling off machinations with the lucrative lots.
In 2012, Chuiskoe Federal State Unitary Enterprise has been transformed into Chuiskoe Limited Liability Company. In 2017, it went bankrupt and an insolvency administrator was appointed to handle its liquidation. The administrator has discovered a number of newly-made land transfers. It turned out that in 2014, 87 lots with a total area of 10.2 thousand ha were transferred for free to private companies through the assignment of leasehold rights. Almost 90% of lands formerly belonging to the RAAS and worth in total some 172 million rubles ($2.8 million) have changed their owners.
Two lots with a total area of 86 ha were transferred for free to Altaisky Bereg (Altai Shore) Limited Liability Company belonging to brothers Ivan and Anton Pal’taller. The sons of Robert Pal’taller, First Deputy Chairman of the Government of the Altai Republic, own Altaisky Bereg in equal shares.
Sons of Robert Pal’taller
Robert Pal’taller was born in 1952 in Soli township, Solikamsk district, Perm region. In 1974, graduated from the Altai Polytechnic Institute with a major in “Equipment and Technology of the Welding Industry”. In 2002, graduated from the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration. After the graduation, held various positions at the Barnaul Boiler Plant up until 1994. In 1994, became a Vice President of Demidov Siberian Mining and Industrial Corporation. In 1995, became the General Director of Vaiter Limited Liability Company. In 1996, became the General Director of Barnaul Distillery Open Joint Stock Company. In 2004, was appointed the Financial and Economic Advisor to General Director of Altaikraigazservis Open Joint Stock Company. In 2004, became a Deputy General Director for Production and Sales of Barnaulsky Vodokanal (Barnaul Water Service Company) Limited Liability Company. In 2004, became its general director. In 2006, was appointed a Deputy Chairman of the Government of the Altai Republic. In 2014, became the First Deputy Chairman of the Government of the Altai Republic.
Therefore, Pal’taller is believed to be the main candidate for dismissal following the audit carried out by the Prosecutor General’s Office. This political heavyweight has been the second supreme functionary in the republic for 12 years. He became a deputy head of the region after serving for one year under the auspices of Aleksander Berdnikov – another likely candidate for termination. During his years-long reign, Berdnikov was involved in numerous high-profile scandals. Their number is so high that Mikhail Vinogradov, President of St. Petersburg Politics Fund, considers the ‘unsinkability’ of the republican head ‘incomprehensible’.
Aleksander Berdnikov was born in 1953 in Gorno-Altaysk. In 1986, graduated from the Altai State University. In 1973–1974, worked as a machine operator on a furniture factory in Gorno-Altaysk. In 1974, became a district police inspector of the Department of Internal Affairs of the Gorno-Altaysk City Executive Committee. In 1976, was appointed the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department. Since 1980, was a Senior Inspector for Special Cases of the Administration of Criminal Investigation of the Administration of Internal Affairs for the Altai Krai and Deputy Head of the Department for Combating Crimes Against Persons of the Administration of Criminal Investigation of the Administration of Internal Affairs for the Altai Krai. In 1983, was appointed the Head of the Department of Internal Affairs of the Maiminsky District Executive Committee of the Gorno-Altai Autonomous Region. In 1991, became the Criminal Police Chief and Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of the Altai Republic. In 1993, was appointed the Minister of Internal Affairs of the Altai Republic. On October 14, 2002, became the Main Federal Inspector of the Altai Krai. On October 29, 2002, was promoted to the Main Federal Inspector of the Altai Republic and Altai Krai of the Presidential Plenipotentiary Envoy to the Siberian Federal District. In 2005, Aleksander Berdnikov became the Head of the Altai Republic and Chairman of the Republican Government.
Pal’taller and Berdnikov were involved together in many high-profile stories and scandals. For instance, they were in charge of a project entitled “The Altai Valley Special Tourism and Recreation Economic Zone” in the Altai Republic. The federal budget has transferred the first portion of the funding in 2007; the tourism zone was supposed to be launched in 2013. The project completion was initially postponed for a year, then for two more years. In 2014, RBK Group has named “The Altai Valley” one of the most controversial governmental spendings – alongside with the creation of Public Television of Russia, innovative urban greening of Moscow, aid to island states, and development of a domestic search system.
Robert Pal’taller and Aleksander Berdnikov
A huge artificial lake was supposed to become the core of the enormously large-scale – for the Altai Republic – project; 902 million rubles ($14.6 million) have been spent on it. In 2015, activists of the project “For Fair Acquisitions” of the All-Russia People’s Front found out that the lake was leaking because it had been refilled with water three times already, while 5.9 billion rubles ($95.2 million) allocated from the state budget to create “The Altai Valley” Special Economic Zone were used ineffectively. The Audit Chamber of the Russian Federation had repeatedly criticized the special economic zone for its ineffectiveness as well.
In October 2017, “The Altai Valley” was finally liquidated as per order of Dmitry Medvedev. The artificial lake could not be filled with water, and it was decided to stop patching its holes. The federal funds have literally slipped through a crack. However, after the project closure, Pal’taller has boldly announced that “the operations of the special economic zone won’t change; it is just going to change its federal status to the regional one and continue developing”. Berdnikov, in turn, has warmly invited investors to “enter the site and build tourism facilities”.
“The Altai Valley”
Pal’taller and Berdnikov were in charge of another high-profile federal project – construction of Atlant Sports Complex that can’t be commissioned since 2012.
Over the years, the erected building frame has fallen into disrepair; currently it requires renovations, and Dmitry Medvedev had to sign in September 2017 an order to allocate additional funds in the amount of 367.6 million rubles ($5.9 million) from the federal budget for this project. However, this did not help – and on May 28, 2018, Medvedev has allocated a similar sum – 332.6 million rubles ($5.4 million) – from the governmental reserve fund.
Pal’taller and Berdnikov were involved together in one more scandal that has hit the national headlines.
In summer 2017, local blogger Andrei Aradin shared records of regional head’s private conversations with the media. Using obscene language, Berdnikov calls his first deputy an “underling” and “spit on the ground” and provides his vision of the republic as a whole. Overall, his message can be paraphrased as follows: «The work, all this stuff, I am fed up with you fools, tomorrow depart to Moscow, can’t wait for that moment, the sooner the better, the President does not allow, he says: “Please work, no one, except for you, can control it, they will pillage everything, put the people into shit again”. He says: “Sash, please work one more year, and I will take you from there”. I would gladly depart today. I have worked here for 12 years – enough. Then you’ll cry remembering me, who has done so much for the public, you ungrateful people». The Head of the Altai Republic has also named all native Altai nationals “traitors” and noted that “there isn’t a single Altaian who hadn’t betrayed me”.
After the publication of the records, Berdnikov did not attempt to deny the obvious or pretend that this wasn’t his voice. In his blog, the head of Altai named the publication of the conversation by Aradin a “mean trick” and the conversation itself – an “unpleasant situation”. However, local activists from Altai Quriltai public organization were not satisfied with his apologies and addressed the Russian President asking to check the sanity of Berdnikov. On the other hand, people close to the regional head were surprised by such a sharp reaction of the general public. They got used to the Governor’s specific way of talking with subordinates a long time ago. «This is not the first time he speaks nonsense. We remember him calling Altaians “boneheads” at one of the sessions,» – Vladimir Petrov, ex-Chairman of the Government of the Altai Republic told. “Aleksander Vasilievich does not use profanities in such emotional situations – he plainly speaks the obscene language,” – Semen Zubakin, ex-Head of the Altai Republic, explained.
Semen Zubakin, ex-Head of the Altai Republic
After this publication, many outside experts had expected Berdnikov to be terminated. But residents of the region knew that the Head of the Altai Republic had nothing to worry about – the Russian President highly appreciated his loyalty and could forgive virtually everything to him. Especially taking that Berdnikov knows how to arrange recreation for important people from Moscow. The persistent rumors about VIP poaching trips have been confirmed in 2009 – a Mi-8 helicopter crashed near the Chernaya Mountain; seven high-ranked officials, including Aleksander Kosopkin, Presidential Envoy to the State Duma, were killed. Photos taken on the crash site show the dead bodies lying near corpses of Red Book argali sheep shot by them.
Photos from the crash site
The federal authorities used to forgive everything to Berdnikov because he was considered one of the most honest Governors – he lived simpler than other regional heads and was never caught in corruption. However, the audit carried out by the Prosecutor General’s Office has opened the eyes of the national leadership to a secret well-known to all residents of the Altai Republic: Berdnikov is pretty skilled in filling his pockets with budget money. He uses a simple trick – puts the blame for yet another fault on poor organizational coordination or his subordinates. Many corrupt officials from the inner circle of Berdnikov have already been charged with corruption, including Gorno-Altaysk Mayor Viktor Oblogin, Vice Mayor Nikolai Kolesnichenko, and Ekaterina Petrenko, Head of the Education Department of the Altai Republic. Now the law enforcement authorities are going to ask some questions to his first deputy. Pal’taller, being the ‘right hand’ of the regional head, knows everything about his affairs and may provide the required evidence. For instance, he may explain why the contract to build above-mentioned Atlant Sports Complex was awarded to Gorno-Stroy Limited Liability Company on a sole-source basis. And why Gorno-Tur Limited Liability Company was building cottages and hotels in “The Altai Valley”.
Gorno-Altaysk Mayor Viktor Oblogin
The both companies belong to Valery Vavilkin, Deputy of the State Assembly of the Altai Republic, believed to be affiliated with Berdnikov. Since the beginning of his governorship, once-humble Gorno-Stroy construction company has been winning numerous governmental tenders to build and supply residential and non-residential premises for republican and municipal institutions for the total amount of some 4 billion rubles ($64.6 million). In order to ‘consume’ all the available budget funds, Vavilkin has established several other companies specializing in the power sector, tourism, agriculture, meat processing, etc. Pal’taller knows for sure who had received kickbacks from these governmental contracts and can prove this.
The current tenure of Aleksander Berdnikov expires in fall 2019. Political experts believe that the Governor, whose rating is one of the lowest among his colleagues, won’t be able to retain his post until the end of the third term. However, at a session of the State Assembly of the Altai Republic held on May 24, the regional head made a clear hint about the fourth term. Would investigators be able to collect sufficient evidence against Berdnikov before the new election where, similarly with the last campaign, he is going to offer “treacherous” Altaians to vote for him in exchange for a bottle of vodka? And what to expect from his next term?