Ekho Moskvy is Russia’s oldest independent radio station. In the 21 years for which it has been broadcasting, it was shut down only once: in August 1991, on the order of the leaders of the short-lived Communist coup d’état (to this day, Ekho journalists consider it a badge of honor). In 2001, during Vladimir Putin’s assault on businessman Vladimir Gusinsky’s media empire, which saw its flagship NTV channel seized by the state-run energy giant Gazprom, the majority stake in Ekho Moskvy was also transferred to the company, but the station maintained its independent editorial line. Opposition leaders, barred from national television, continued to be welcome guests in its studios; its news programs routinely covered stories that irritated the Kremlin. The regime did not hide its view of the station: Putin accused Ekho Moskvy of “pouring diarrhea” over him, while his party filed a complaint against the station for “extremism.”
The majority owners of Ekho Moskvy apparently heeded the signal. This week, Gazprom confirmed that it is calling an early shareholder meeting to replace the station’s board of directors. Two independent directors, lawyer Alexander Makovsky and economist Yevgeny Yasin, will not be on the new board. Nor will Ekho Moskvy’s veteran editor, Aleksei Veneditkov, or his deputy, Vladimir Varfolomeev. Gazprom’s representatives, who held four of the nine seats on the outgoing board, will now control five seats—enough to pass any decision, including the dismissal of the editor. In Yasin’s view, “this was done to impose state control over the independent media.” Although Veneditkov maintains that the order did not come from Putin himself, the station’s communiqué stated that “Gazprom Media could not help but react to the criticism of the radio station by Russia’s top-ranking officials.” Putin’s press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, denied his boss’s involvement, but promptly accused Ekho Moskvy of “unconstructive, partisan, and biased criticism” of the premier. In a statement, Gazprom Media explained its decision by “the growing attention to the radio station from various sides.”
Few doubt that Gazprom’s decision was a response to the most serious challenge to Putin in his 12-year rule: the mass pro-democracy protests that swept Russia since December. “This step is being taken now precisely because the situation in the country and in society is changing,” wrote opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky, “It is not surprising that the reaction is repressive. The authorities do not know otherwise … But the movement that began in society cannot be stopped by repression or bribery … People want freedom … The stronger ‘the screws are tightened’, the more evident the deficit of freedom will become.” This assessment is hard to dispute. Even the Kremlin, it seems, is beginning to realize that 2012 is not 2001. The time when the regime could do as it pleased—and expect silence in return—is over. Solidarity, the liberal movement which was instrumental in organizing the recent protests, pledged to “call Muscovites and residents of other cities onto the streets to protect their beloved radio station from Vladimir Putin.” Even pro-Kremlin analysts admitted that the destruction of Ekho Moskvy in the midst of anti-government protests would anger millions of its listeners and further embolden the opposition.
On Wednesday, Gazprom Media backed down. For whatever it’s worth, the company has pledged not to make “any changes in personnel, including the editor,” or “changes in the editorial policy.” It is now up to Russia’s newly empowered civil society to ensure that the country’s most prominent independent media voice is not silenced.