Reporting from Moscow — As the Russian presidential race enters its final weeks, a radio station considered one of the country's few stalwarts of free speech is facing orders from its government-owned parent company to reshuffle management, officials said Tuesday.
The Echo of Moscow station, which is often critical of the government, is expected to lose editor in chief Alexei Venediktov, his first deputy, Vladimir Varfolomeyev, and at least two other key members of its board of directors in late March, leaving a pro-Kremlin majority on the board, station officials and media experts said.
The changes, which observers say probably will result in a less independent and objective editorial policy, were ordered by Gazprom-Media Holding, a branch of a state-owned natural gas giant and controlling shareholder of the radio station, officials said.
Echo of Moscow, which has regularly hosted opposition leaders on its shows and featured them in interviews, has had a complicated relationship with the Kremlin, and with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in particular. Putin, who enjoys about 50% support nationwide, is expected to win his third presidential term in the election set for March 4 at least in part because the opposition does not have a strong leader on the ballot.
The relationship between Putin and the station has deteriorated since December parliamentary elections, which were marred by accusations of massive fraud and ballot box stuffing by Putin supporters. Since then, the station has offered extensive coverage of several mass protests against the powerful politician.
At a meeting with mass media editors last month, Putin at one point abruptly interrupted Venediktov, saying, "You have been pouring diarrhea over me from morning till night."
Gazprom-Media Holding spokeswoman Irina Zenkova called the proposed board changes "an internal corporate procedure," in an email exchange with The Times.
"These suggestions were planned to be discussed at a regular general Echo of Moscow shareholders meeting in summer 2012," Zenkova wrote. "However, given the heightened attention to the radio station coming recently from all sides," the company decided to act sooner.
The move amounts to a warning from the Kremlin to the station that it is one of the first in line for punishment after Putin wins the election, said Gleb Pavlovsky, president of the Foundation for Effective Politics, a Moscow-based think tank.
"Putin has more than once recently spoken against the radio station's critical attitude, and today's signal clearly indicates that it is in for a good whipping," Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin advisor, said in an interview. "However, I must admit that it is a tactical mistake to bring it out during the presidential campaign as it may backfire against the Kremlin."
Sergei Buntman, also a first deputy chief editor at Echo of Moscow, confirmed the coming board change and implied that it was the result of direct political pressure, calling it "a very ugly step."
"This ill-planned move doesn't make Putin look good … and doesn't help his campaign at all," Buntman said in an interview.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the matter internal corporate business.
"Putin has expressed his criticism of the radio station's coverage, but it has nothing to do with the company's intra-corporate policies," Peskov said in an interview Tuesday.
The opposition Solidarity movement called the proposed measures "a new blow against freedom of speech" and a "spitting in the face of all Russian citizens."
Putin's campaign managers are getting nervous as the election date nears and are taking dangerous and desperate steps aimed at intimidation of mass media, said Mikhail Kasyanov, a leader of the unregistered opposition PARNAS party and a former prime minister.
"They are trying to suppress and shut up the remaining sources of true information on the eve of the election, which Putin desperately needs to win in the first round," Kasyanov said in an interview. "I am confident that Putin intends eventually to replace the editorial leadership of Echo of Moscow if not close it down altogether."