RD Interview: Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of radio station Echo of Moscow, discusses the 2016 parliamentary elections, the effectiveness of the Kremlin’s tactics and strategy, and the mysterious death of a former Russian presidential aide in Washington.
Women choosing T-shirts with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin in St.Petersburg. Photo: AP
Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Russia’s leading liberal radio station, Echo of Moscow, has faced political pressure and numerous threats during his journalistic career. Many see his radio station as the leading opposition media outlet for its consistent and harsh criticism of the Kremlin. There have even been several attempts to close the radio station. However, despite being in the center of Russia’s political uncertainty, Echo of Moscow has managed to survive.
In an interview with Russia Direct, Venediktov shares his extensive experience of dealing with the Russian authorities and discusses the political situation in the country, including the upcoming 2016 parliamentary elections, the future of the protest movement and the thinking of the Kremlin’s inner circle. In particular, he explains the Kremlin’s decision-making logic and sheds light on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tactics and strategy. Finally, Venediktov explains why the death of the Russian President’s former aide, Mikhail Lesin, is just an accident, not a conspiracy.
Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Echo of Moscow. Photo: RIA Novosti
Russia Direct: Given that some see your radio station as the opposition media, how do you choose to identify yourself?
Alexei Venediktov: We see ourselves as professional media. In my view, any media should oppose the decision-making of the authorities, because those in power already have the opportunity to say something good about themselves.
However, the decisions of the authorities or opposition politicians have an impact on the interests of millions of people. That’s why the mission of media is to test and look into these decisions, having introduced them [to the public]. In this regard, any media by its nature is opposed to the authorities. Those media organizations that oppose the government are professional ones.
There are opposition media or partisan media, which criticize and lambast the authorities no matter what those at the helm do. But when their party peers come to power they, in contrast, call for supporting their decisions. This is the classic opposition or pro-government media. We are neither pro-government, nor opposition one. We are professional media.
RD: The very fact of the existence of such a professional radio station as yours, with its critical approach toward the authorities, brings about a sort of cognitive dissonance among some representatives of foreign and Russian audiences. In fact, skeptics would argue that it is almost impossible to do high-profile professional journalism today in modern Russia, because, according to them, there is neither freedom of speech, nor the possibility to criticize and provide oversight of the authorities. In contrast, there is political pressure on journalists and abuse of their professional rights. So, why hasn’t the Kremlin closed your station, if it allegedly cannot put up with criticism?
A.V.: We do exist and we prefer not to think about the reason why we still exist. We see certain threats facing us, but we manage to ward them off, sometimes not without losses. But most importantly, our editorial policy is open and public. That’s why saying that professional journalism is impossible [in Russia] sounds very strange. So, without thinking what will happen to you tomorrow, it is necessary to work professionally today.
RD: You mentioned threats. What threats have you already faced?
A.V.: We have faced numerous threats. Last year, several times we faced the threat of closure, initiated by the head of our Board of Directors. We faced the threat of reformatting us into a music radio station. We faced the threat of my dismissal.
We are facing economic threats when out general director, appointed by the administration of the President, leads to the bankruptcy of the radio station. We are facing physical threats from Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov. So, a bodyguard accompanies my family and me.
We are facing different threats, including anonymous ones. Every time when you are on air at the radio station, these threats are coming at you. So, we exist in a cloud of threats. What other format of our existence can we choose: to stop working or change our editorial policy? None of these options is interesting to us, I mean, my team. That’s why we keep working as we worked before.
RD: You said Kadyrov threatened you. Don’t you think that Putin is concerned with the Chechen leader’s behavior, given his ambitions to become a national politician and his belief that he acts with impunity?
A.V.: Not really. Putin thinks that he is using Kadyrov as a tool, first and foremost, to intimidate those [opponents] like me and control the North Caucasus through Kadyrov’s political heft. By no means is Putin afraid of Kadyrov, nor is he even concerned with him. Such behavior is foreign to Putin. Again, Kadyrov is just a tool.
RD: Do you mean a tool that is spoiled with power and might cross the acceptable boundaries of this power?
A.V.: Well, an instrument might have different configurations. Yes, it might be spoiled with power - or it may be tamed like a predatory animal.
RD: I have a question about your stakeholders, I mean, Gazprom-Media, a company that has close connections to the Kremlin. The stakeholders are deemed to “order the music” and determine the editorial policy, right?
A.V.: Well, it depends on the opportunities of a certain stakeholder. For example, if we are talking from the legal point of view, Russia’s Law on Media forbids stakeholders in Russia to interfere in editorial policy. In addition, according to Echo of Moscow’s editorial code, the only person that determines the editorial policy of the radio station is the editor-in-chief.
Without doubt, our stakeholders have certain rights. They have an opportunity to run a certain interview at the radio station and I will publish it without question. I don’t see any ground not to do it. They also can ask me to make the radio station more profitable and I do understand this. But they cannot ask me to censor the content and interfere in our editorial policy.
RD: Have there been any attempts to meddle in your editorial agenda?
A.V.: There have always been such attempts. And this is normal, when a stakeholder thinks that he or she can manage and influence [editorial policy]. In this case, every time I just take out the editorial code and show it to them to make it clear who determines our editorial policy. If they don’t like it, they can change the code. But don’t forget that I am also a stakeholder and control 13 percent of the radio’s assets [Gazprom-Media owns about 66 percent of the assets – Editor’s note].
As a stakeholder, I do understand that I won’t let them change the editorial code, because it is the editor-in-chief who should determine editorial policy, not a stakeholder. The President told me: You are in charge of what is happening at Echo of Moscow. If the stakeholders don’t like it, let them negotiate on this issue with the President.
RD: Last week, many Russian and foreign media reported that Mikhail Lesin, former presidential aide, an original co-founder of RT, and the former head of Echo of Moscow’s major stakeholder, died in Washington as a result of blunt force injures to his head, neck, torso, arms and legs. He was initially reported to have died because of a heart attack. Why does this version come out only now?
A.V.: U.S. medical experts have finished the expertise of the Washington police only now. And this is neither rumor, nor a version of events. This is the fact of medical and legal expertise, because it is in the public interest, because the body of the deceased belongs to ex-presidential aide and minister Mikhail Lesin [Lesin was Russia’s Press Minister between 1999 and 2004 – Editor’s note].
However, we forgot about the fact that, the next day after Lesin’s death, the Washington police took over the probe. This took place on November 7, 2015. It happened four months ago. And everybody is surprised now with this fact. But why are they surprised? It is quite enough to look at who is responsible for the investigation. And this would clarify the situation.
RD: Russian anti-corruption campaigner and opposition leader Alexey Navalny recently wrote on his blog that Lesin allegedly crossed the border of the United States 40 days after his death. This led to the rise of conspiracy theories on the Internet.
A.V.: Well, we have certain facts that Lesin is likely to have died as a result of a violent death, right. Where is the ground for conspiracy here? We have medical and legal expertise. The conspiracy theories come from the attempts to answers the question why he was killed. But, again, these theories are groundless: There is no evidence, no suspicions, no video footage, no new Lugovoi [Andrei Lugovoi, a Russian politician and former KGB bodyguard, is the major suspect in the poisoning of ex-KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London – Editor’s note]. That’s why people are just talking about that – they don’t really understand.
Personally, I think that this is just an accident. It just looks like a domestic crime in its nature. If it were a violent crime, just a scuffle might have taken place. And he just died as a result of this scuffle. Nobody intended to kill him, it seems to me. This is not the way [professionals] kill – one bullet or a dose of polonium would be enough.
So, I am not a big fan of such a conspiracy. To me, it seems very primitive and unprofessional.
Vladimir Churov, the former head of Russia’s Central Election Commission. Photo: RIA Novosti
RD: The head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, will leave his post before the 2016 parliamentary elections. What changes will his resignation bring to Russia’s electoral system, in your view?
A.V.: It [Churov’s ouster] is not the only change [in the country’s electoral system]. First, he is a figure that discredits the very history of parliamentary elections [Churov’s tenure saw a number of alleged violations and falsifications, especially during the 2011 parliamentary campaign that led to large-scale protests at Bolotnaya Square in central Moscow, which turned into a robust protest movement – Editor’s note].
One of the tasks of the current presidential administration is to legitimize the upcoming parliamentary elections and prevent any large-scale protests similar to those that were a response to the rigged elections in 2011. That’s why the replacement of Churov is an attempt to legitimize the elections.
But, at the same time, we should keep in mind that during these elections there won’t be early voting, which was the major topic within the debates about the falsifications. Moreover, there will be video and surveillance cameras established in big cities’ voting polls. In 2011 there weren’t such cameras. In addition, this year 14 parties registered as participants of the 2016 elections, including opposition parties Yabloko and PARNAS.
You see, it is the whole set of governmental measures, which, in my view, respond to the challenges of Bolotnaya: This is how the authorities are trying to alleviate the protests. So, the ouster of Churov is a symbolic move. After all, it is not the Central Election Commission that makes decisions, but the administration of the President, which sends a signal that it is going to make the 2016 elections much more legitimate than they were in 2011.
RD: You said that the Kremlin is making an attempt to minimize the risks of new protests. So, do you think that the odds of new large-scale protests are high?
A.V.: I cannot be sure, because the Bolotnaya protests resulted from a specific action: The rigged voting in 2011, when an insulted and disappointed middle class understood that their votes were stolen and people took to the streets. If today, despite economic challenges, which are much more difficult than the ones in 2011, the elections will formally be legitimate and won’t bring about harsh indignation, first and foremost, among middle class urbanites, there won’t be political protests, of course.
RD: However, these moves don’t clarify the Kremlin’s political strategy. Some politicians and economists argue that Putin doesn’t have a long-term strategy for developing the country and resolving current challenges. What is your take?
A.V.: He might have a certain strategy, but I don’t see it as effective. Again, it is a matter of philosophical talk of how one should define the strategy. Talking about the President, he is a tactician to a certain extent, a very brilliant and flexible tactician. However, it doesn’t mean that he is effective. That is, if you ask what aspect of the policy of the authorities prevails – tactics or strategy, I would rather respond: “Yes, tactics.”
Read the Q&A with Carnegie Moscow Center's Andrei Kolesnikov: "Why the Kremlin neglects strategic thinking"
But on the other hand, given that Putin’s mindset seems to me imperialistic, I see his major task as the restoration of the Yalta-Potsdam system of the world order. This is his very strategy [In accordance with such a system, two superpowers – the U.S. and the Soviet Union – were dominant geopolitical players. – Editor’s note]. To what extent will such a strategy be effective? It remains to be seen. So far, it leaves much to be desired.
RD: In the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, the West made no bones about its reluctance to deal with Putin, implying that effective dialogue with Russia and the restoration of normal relations are possible only in the case of Putin stepping down. So, will this ever happen?
A.V.: Now I don’t see any preconditions of Putin’s resignation. He will stand for election with a presidential bid in 2018 and win. This, in turn, shifts the horizon [of his tenure] to 2024. Many events might happen during this time span. After all, the annexation of Crimea took place over the course of one year. The world is developing very chaotically. Who could even imagine Crimea’s incorporation and the Syrian war five years ago? If we try to predict events within an eight-year timeframe, it is very difficult to imagine how the world will look like in the future. It is just pure guesswork.
RD: What changes or new political configurations can you see within Russia’s political elites, the so-called “Politburo 2.0”?
A.V.: Putin has two closest advisors: They are Nikolai Patrushev [the secretary of Russia’s Security Council] and Sergey Ivanov [the head of the Presidential Administration]. They are close to him both educationally and mentally. The more years pass by, the more influential they become.
However, five years ago, Putin was in a more diverse political environment, with people of different backgrounds and mindset around him. That’s why, as long as Putin is at the helm, these people and those like them [both Patrushev and Ivanov are former KGB officers – Editor’s note] will determine his mindset and policy.
RD: What are the major challenges of Russia’s political elites at the moment?
A.V.: The problem is that Russia is lagging behind the world’s development, including the technological gap. It also includes the absence of any rotation among the country’s political elites. And this is the major problem. They think within the context of the 20th century, and the rest of the problems result from such rigid mentality.
RD: This week Russia will mark the second anniversary of Crimea’s incorporation. What are the odds of compromise in the near future, or will this problem persist for a long time?
A.V.: It is difficult to say for sure. In fact, we know that the annexation of the Baltics by the Soviet Union lasted for 50 years until the collapse of the Soviet state. Today the world runs much faster and there should not necessarily be a physical collapse of the state, but Crimea will be part of Russia for a long period of time…
RD: “… For a long period of time.” Do you mean that the Crimean peninsula will return to Ukraine one day?
A.V.: To tell the truth, I don’t know. There is an example. The territory of Alsace is one of the most blood-soaked land areas in Europe: About 10 times it went from France to Germany and vice versa. Now it is not so significant, given that today there are no borders and a common currency [within the EU]. The urgency of the problem is alleviated not by territorial integrity, but by the development of a united Europe. I think this is the most promising way of dealing with the Crimea challenge.
Of course, there may be an alternative way: a referendum under the control of international organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). But we should admit that Russia would win in this referendum.
RD: And the final question is about Russia’s policy in the Middle East. Given that Moscow and Washington signed the Syria ceasefire agreement and Putin's recent announcement that Russia will withdraw its troops from Syria, how long will Russia really stay in this region?
A.K.: Syria is also a tool of the Kremlin to break Russia’s isolation resulting from the Ukrainian crisis. In this regard, it is a big success of Putin, because dealing with the Syrian problem turns out to have been impossible without Russia. That’s why Putin will try to gain as many benefits as possible from this tool. Again, Putin is relying on tactics. Tactfully he broke through this isolation. The next step is to confirm this breakthrough, to achieve the cancelation of sanctions (or, at least, part of these sanctions) and break through the second “layer” of isolation. It is a matter of a step-by-step policy.
The other side of the coin is the risk of Russia getting stuck in Syria for a long time. It’s easy to enter, but harder to leave. So, we are stuck in the Middle East. And this is our, if not Afghanistan, then Vietnam. I mean the first stage of Vietnam – aerial bombing. What will be the next stage still remains to be seen.
RD: Yet Putin announced yesterday that Russia is withdrawing from Syria.
A.V.: Russia will stay in Syria for a while. We have the second base opened there.