MOSCOW – Russia’s most independent and liberal radio station has been firmly reminded of who’s boss here, winding up on the losing end of a boardroom fight.
Ekho Moskvy, or Echo of Moscow, has been a fixture in Russia since just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, a favorite of the intelligentsia, a relentless critic of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and, many believe, a safety valve in a country where free expression on the airwaves is typically suppressed. But with a presidential election campaign underway, and tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets regularly, even Ekho Moskvy’s relatively small voice might have become too loud for the Kremlin’s liking.
Though it has been under the control of the vast state-owned company Gazprom since 2000, the station has until now maintained an ornery independence under its editor-in-chief, Alexei Venediktov, and has been a leading source of news and commentary in the political upheaval of the past two months.
But the station announced Tuesday that Gazprom had ordered a shake-up of its board, removing two independent directors. Venediktov and another employee resigned their own board seats in protest, though they are keeping their jobs at the station. They vowed not to change their approach to the news.
Some analysts suggested Tuesday that the scale of the public protests over dishonest elections had led the Kremlin to conclude that Ekho Moskvy was no longer a harmless bit of free-speech window-dressing, but a danger in its own right.
Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets who is running against Putin in the March 4 presidential election, offered Tuesday to help the journalists at the station buy out Gazprom’s 66 percent share. But in the past Gazprom has always said it wasn’t interested in selling, and that would seem to be even more the case now. The company, controlled by Putin’s inner circle, owns a variety of media holdings — not to make a profit, but to keep them in reliable hands.
During a public face-to-face meeting in December, Putin complained to Venediktov that the radio station pours excrement on him day and night. (He used a coarse word that doesn’t have an exact equivalent in English slang.) He was especially incensed at a report that talked positively about the proposed U.S. missile defense shield, a sore point in relations between Washington and Moscow.
Shortly thereafter, the station said Tuesday, Gazprom demanded the changes. Venediktov said in a tweet that he was positive the move was political but that Putin himself did not order the shake-up. More likely, this was a case of Gazprom taking its cue from Putin’s public comment to Venediktov and moving on its own in an effort to anticipate the prime minister’s wishes. Much the same thing appears to have happened in December when the owner of Kommersant Vlast magazine, Alisher Usmanov, fired two top editors over a cover photo of Putin.
Sergei Mitrokhin, a leader of the opposition Yabloko party, said the motivation was clearly political. “Apparently, Putin’s power system is being restored and strengthened,” he told the Interfax news agency. “Most likely, from Putin and his team’s point of view, Ekho Moskvy went beyond the limits set for mass media in this system. It is a signal to tighten the bolts.”
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied Tuesday that the reshuffling of the board was linked to the station’s treatment of his boss.
“It is an open secret that Putin was, and remains, a target of criticism on Ekho Moskvy,” Peskov told Interfax. “He has had no complaints about objective criticism.” But Peskov added that Putin does resent criticism that is “unconstructive and biased,” which he said was “becoming dominant” on the station.
Gazprom was instrumental a decade ago in the dismantling of the often satirically independent NTV television company, which it took over after Putin harassed NTV’s original owner into exile.
Now Ekho Moskvy staffers fear that their station may follow NTV, though the board of directors does not exercise editorial oversight. The station pointed out in a statement that the board was due for new members in June, anyway; the implication is that Gazprom felt it had to move before next month’s presidential election.
“Such haste requires explanation,” the statement said. “We regret that two independent directors, Alexander Makovsky and Yevgeny Yasin, who have helped Ekho Moskvy to develop for 11 years, have to leave the board as a result of these events. We believe their dismissal is unfair.”
The statement said the station would establish a “public council” and that it will be run by the two dismissed directors. Venediktov has considerable clout and credibility with the public, and he appeared to be daring Gazprom to take further action against the station.