Venediktov Resigns from Ekho Moskvy’s Board, Citing Secret Gazprom Loan Blindsiding Him with Putin

July 30, 2018
Aleksey Venediktov. Photo by Alexander Zemilianichenko/AP

Update: Aleksey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Russia’s only remaining independent radio station, resigned from the board of directors of the radio company, citing a dispute with the general manager about funding from Gazprom.

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Venediktov Resigns from Ekho Moskvy’s Board, Citing Unknown Gazprom Loan; Blindsided in Question to Putin

Photo by Valery Sharifulin/ITAR-TASS 

Today, Aleksey Venediktov, long-time editor-in-chief of Russia’s only remaining independent radio station, Ekho Moskvy, announced that he had resigned from the board of directors of the station, where he represented the company’s minority shareholders.

In an interview with a fellow radio journalist, he explains that his reasons had to do with being blindsided about a Gazprom loan by the radio’s general director, Yekaterina Pavlova, who was brought into this position by the board in 2015.

During a call-in show in June 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Ekho Moskvy was “funded by Gazprom” but did not interfere in the station’s editorial policy, proving there was freedom of speech in Russia.

But then he added, “Although, I agree, very many things that are propagandized there require very attentive filtration.”

Venediktov said he didn’t understand what “filtration” implied and commented that Putin may have meant the tone of some “harsh and radical” statements by some guests and journalists. As for “funding by Gazprom” (as distinct from majority ownership of shares by Gazprom Media), he said he didn’t know about it.

The majority of shares in Ekho Moskvy (66%) are held by Gazprom Media, the media holding company related to the state gas monopolist Gazprom, whose holdings also include the pro-Kremlin TV station NTV and the magazine Itogi. The remainder (34%) are held by the staff.

In 2015, Venediktov voted against replacing then-general director Mikhail Dyomin with Yekaterina Pavlova, noting that Dyomin had been the third general director in 18 months.

Earlier in November 2014, Venediktov faced a showdown with Mikhail Lesin, then chairman of the board of Gazprom-Media when reporter Aleksandr Plyushchev was fired for a tweet that many Russians saw as joking in bad taste about the drowning death of the son of Sergei Ivanov, then Kremlin chief of staff.

Venediktov said that under the station’s charter, only he had the power to fire reporters and that Plyushchev had apologized.

In the end, Plyushchev was forced to take a leave of absence, but hung on to his job.

Meanwhile, Lesin fell from favor, and ended up dying under mysterious circumstances in a hotel in Washington, DC and is believed by some intelligence and law-enforcement officers to have been murdered.

Ekho Moskvy has had a rocky time dealing with state censorship, at one point removing the regular blogs of opposition anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny and Boris Nemtsov, who was assassinated in 2015. In 2016, the radio program of New Times magazine editor Yevgeniya Albats, author of a critical book on the KGB and its heirs in Russia’s intelligence services, was taken off the air. Venediktov said Albats had not wished to sign a contract with the general manager which involved pre-clearance of questions to asked on her show. Eventually, Albats resolved the dispute and continued to do her show for the station.

In January 2017, Tatyana Felgenhauer, another critical Ekho Moskvy host, suffered a stabbing attack in the station by a deranged man following two state programs that had denounced her for supporting NGOs that accepted foreign funding.

Over the years, the increasingly restrictive environment for Ekho Moskvy have brought calls for strengthening of US support for independent broadcasting in Russia.

Naryshkin: Hello, everyone! Aleksey Naryshkin is your host
on the air from radio station Ekho Moskvy and television channel RTVi with the
program “Separate Opinion.” We’re expecting Stanislav Belkovsky, but
for now there is Aleksey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of Ekho. Welcome, Alexey.

Venediktov: Good evening.

Naryshkin: So what’s with the story of these apologies to
Putin? You apologized to Putin? For what? This is what was just on the news.

Venediktov: Well, yes. Actually, I will remind you, in early
June, on [the call-in television show] “Direct Line,” Putin said
outright that Ekho Moskvy is funded by Gazprom [the state monopolist]. And at
that I time expressed disbelief in mild form, because there was no information
about funding by Gazprom of Ekho Moskvy.

After that, that is, in the course of this…We learned,
that…In short, Putin was right, and I was not, because [Ekho’s] general
director took a loan behind the backs of the minority shareholders, and a loan
can be considered funding. You see? Actually, it’s a returnable loan, there’s double-digit
interest, and it has to be returned. But it turned out that I subjected to
doubt, to put it mildly (in fact, objected to the president). It was wrong. The
president knew better what was happening with me under my nose at Ekho Moskvy,
at Ekho Moskvy, Ltd. than I myself as a member of the board of directors.

Naryshkin: But you were disinformed.

Venediktov: I was not informed, I would put it that way. Although,
they should have, because not only am I editor-in-chief, I am a member of the board
of directors and the representative of the minority share-holders, who own 34%,
there is 33% and a bit more, of Ekho Moskvy.

In that connection, then what point is there for me to sit
on the board of directors? I left the board of directors. Katya Godlina, my
deputy, will represent the minority shareholders, and I will concentrate on
work at the radio station.

But on the whole, this is humiliating, you see? How many times
I have publicly engaged in polemics with Putin, with Putin’s policy, and I was
always confident that what I was saying reflected at a minimum the facts, and
at the maximum my opinion as well. In this case, if the facts contradict you,
you can only apologize for publicly having disputed this. Although, it is not

Naryshkin: The general director of Ekho Moskvy undermined
the editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy.

Venediktov: Well, you know, it is not the first and not the
last time. But the story is in my relations with the president, not in my
relations with the general director. That is, we will sort it out. But the fact
that in the public zone, I turned out to be absolutely wrong for the first
time, 100% wrong… Here, for the first time, 100% wrong in the public sense with
the president (it isn’t important whether it is Yeltsin, Putin, Gorbachev). You
see? That is humiliating, of course, and therefore I decided that I will no
longer be in the board of directors.

Naryshkin: And has there been a reaction from the Kremlin?
Were the apologies accepted?

Venediktov: No…First, I have not yet apologized. That is,
I am now apologizing, right? I wrote Dmitry Peskov on the Telegram channel that
I was forced to apologize. “I’m sorry: the president was right, and not
me.” Well, that’s the truth, you see? You know, having slipped on that
pebble, continuing to criticize the president for his policy (for his domestic
policy, for his policy on Ukraine, Crimea, and so on), where I am an executive
in Ekho Moskvy, Ltd….I repeat, the editor-in-chief, a member of the board of
directors, a representative of a third of the shareholders, and suddenly, here,
I’m “off,” you see? So what is left for me to do? Only apologize.

Naryshkin: Well, it turns out that Venediktov is not as
blameless in the view of critics, then.

Venediktov: But it turns out Venediktov is not as blameless
in the view of our listeners, that you don’t know what is going on under your
nose. What can you know about what is going on in the country, there, or in the
world, or in space, for example?

Naryshkin: What are you poking your nose into?

Venediktov: Exactly right, what are you poking your nose
into? Well, that’s how it is, of course.

But I always believed that admission of your mistakes, your
lack of informedness, if you will, is a position of strength. In that sense, I
am a strong person and I am not shy about admitting that.

Naryshkin: But if we speak about the radio station. These loans
here with the double-digit interest…

Venediktov: Well, it’s… Listen…you see?

Naryshkhin: No, well, listen, it’s alarming. Still and all,
we work here.

Venediktov: No, and what don’t you know? Do you get a

Naryshkin: Yes.

Venediktov: Well, that’s it. Go on working. And going
forward it will be my job as the representative of the minority shareholders,
as the editor-in-chief, to be in contact with the general director and with the
board of directors and the shareholder in order to continue this work.

But once again I repeat, I believe as a shareholder that
Ekho Moskvy can earn money and live without loans. Once again I remind you, the
loans are returnable and at interest. A double digit. That is, if you take the
loan and it sits in your account, the bank earns cash, not you. And you only
expend it (you service it even with loans).

I understand that yes, times are difficult in the country
and so forth and so on. But since Ekho Moskvy’s shares on the market are not
falling, and the radio advertising market has stabilized, I don’t see any
reasons, that if we, starting in 1993, when we began to calculate profits then
already, then the last 3 years with Mikhail Yurevich Lesin and the new general
director, yes, we became not profitable, in short. Therefore there were the
loans. That means an incorrect policy by the advertising bureau.

Naryshkin: Are there any prospects of replacing the general

Venediktov: No, not at all. We twice raised that issue, we
voted against her re-appointment in June, when her contract ran out, and raised
the issue of her removal… No, it was in May. No, it was twice: in June, on
June 15th, and at the meeting on June 28th. But we were not supported by the
majority of the board of directors. So there it is. We’re in the minority.

That happens. That is their right, I want to say, that is
absolutely their right (the shareholders). But they must understand that this
person is leading them into a deficit. I don’t want to talk about the general
director now, I want to talk about Putin. You see?

That means, she led us to a deficit, as a result…This is a
fixable thing, but it is such damage in front of the president…And in front
of the entire country! How many millions of people watched Direct Line? You see?
It’s simple damage to Ekho Moskvy, in fact.

Naryshkin: Well, alright. But if we return to Putin, what is
your strategy now? Repent in each broadcast?

Venediktov: Why repent? No. I am apologize and will
apologize, and going forward we must work and earn money. And I am grateful to
those advertisers, numerous advertisers, who continue their ads, especially,
let’s say, in Moscow… Here, we looked at the half year now. In Moscow, out of
54 radio stations, we’re in the 4-5th place (it varies month to month), 800,000-900,000
listeners every day And among the news radio stations, we’re a bit lower than
Vesti, even with their promotion, you see? Just a little below Vesti. But Vesti
has a federal budget, and we don’t. So here. We just have to work better. I
think we have to be responsible, and not outsiders.

Naryshkin: But the initiatives that periodically come from
minority shareholders, in buying [shares] from Gazprom?

Venediktov: Well, Gazprom told us clearly that they won’t do
that. This is a limited shareholders’ company. I can say that I proposed,
“Then buy them from us.” But now I cannot propose that because the
shares fell in value as a result of these loans! My share has fallen in value.
Actually, I have been ruined as a shareholder. Therefore, even now, if I make
an offer, they will offer me a price to which I cannot agree. That’s all there
is to it.

Listen, our job is to work for the listeners. It’s not
important to them at all what kind of budget we have and what my salary or
yours is. And it’s important for them to get a product. The product is news, it
is discussion and it is opinion, you see? And that, that is what we must
provide regardless of all these things. And of course we will be reminded 100
times that we weren’t right before Putin once. You see? And that, of course,
lowers the level of trust.

Well, I can assure our radio listeners and television
viewers: nothing will be lowered. We will get past this episode and go forward.

Naryshkin: Thank you, Aleksey Venediktov, editor-in-chief of
Ekho Moskvy. And now if you will allow us, we’ll do a small castling. Stanislav
Belkovsky has already come in fact. And let us move to…We’re having
hand-shakes in the studio. Stanislav, be bolder. We’ll thank Aleksey Venediktov
and wish him every success.