Top editor Venediktov, born in 1955 and a school teacher in Soviet times, had the sense to realize, as he later told a Russian interviewer, that “it was time to stop working like amateurs…. A lot was expected of us, but our equipment was obsolete, pay was miserable, and we could not afford to hire people.” So the journalists sold a controlling stake to a professional investor—the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, who had close ties to the Yeltsin regime—with the stipulation, inscribed in the station’s charter, that only they would elect the editor-in-chief, who had final say on editorial content.
When Putin came to power in 2000, determined to crack down on the oligarchs, Gusinsky was an early casualty. He fled the country, signing over his media holdings to a creditor, Gazprom-Media, an arm of the state-controlled energy giant. Once again, it looked like curtains for Ekho Moskvy. But the staff was able to work out an operating agreement with their new “partner.” Under the arrangement, which still stands, Gazprom-Media has 66 percent of the shares and the journalists own the remaining 34 percent. But it takes a super-majority of 75 percent to change the station’s charter, including the crucial provision that the newsroom picks the editor-in-chief. What’s more, each journalist on staff owns at least one share of the station—collectively held in a company registered in Delaware—making it difficult for Gazprom-Media, or any other investor, to gain a 75 percent stake.
As a further precaution, Venediktov deliberately stays out of the station’s financial affairs. Problems for Russians who find themselves on the wrong side of political power often come in the form of ginned-up tax violations and the like. Buntman told me that Venediktov hasn’t signed a single financial document in his entire professional life.
Of course, Putin could still come up with a pretext for shuttering Ekho Moskvy. But doing so would likely cause an international outcry. In another illustration of the journalists’ savvy, the station has spun a web of personal ties with leading Western political figures by giving them a media platform when they visit Moscow. US President Bill Clinton, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and US secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice all made the pilgrimage to Ekho Moskvy while in office. More recently, the new US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, under fire from Putin’s regime for supposedly giving succor to the anti-Putin opposition, went on the station for an interview. Meanwhile, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times cover the station’s plight as a barometer of press freedom in Russia.
“Ekho has become an icon of Russia’s post-Soviet media,” says an admiring competitor, Konstantin von Eggert, a host at Moscow’s Kommersant-FM radio and a former chief of the BBC Russian Service Moscow bureau. Its shutdown “would provoke a huge backlash” in the West, he says.
There’s also a cynical explanation for why Putin tolerates the radio station he hates. Putin understands, the thinking goes, that he is able to keep his grip on power, in part, by giving his harshest critics a safe place to gripe about his regime. The radio station, in this formulation, serves as a convenient pressure-release valve. Furthermore, Ekho Moskvy is the media outlet to which the regime can point when accused of squelching press freedom in Russia.
In my experience, it often pays to believe the cynical explanation for just about anything happening in Russia. But I don’t buy this one. The problem is that Ekho Moskvy really is not all that safe for the Kremlin—not when it gives voice to vitriolic Putin detractors like Alexey Navalny. Last December, after parliamentary elections in which Putin’s United Russia party won a majority on the basis of what appeared to be widespread fraud, tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets, egged on by Navalny, to demonstrate for fair elections. Ekho Moskvy is plainly sympathetic to this movement. For this reason alone, it may be premature to conclude that the station will survive another six years with Putin. Under pressure, the president may consider Ekho Moskvy a threat that he can no longer abide.