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‘Russian Facebook’ founder flees, cites state pressure

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny talks to the media after leaving a justice court building in Moscow, April 22, 2014. (REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov)

MOSCOW: The maverick founder of Russia’s top social network said Tuesday that he had fled the country after selling his share in the company under pressure from the security services.

Pavel Durov told U.S. technology news website TechCrunch he was no longer in Russia and had “no plans to go back” after social network VKontakte (In Touch) announced Monday that he had left the company.

The 29-year-old said Monday that the social network had effectively been taken over by Kremlin allies, including Igor Sechin, one of President Vladimir Putin’s closest confidants.

Durov, who has been compared to Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg, claimed he was squeezed out of VKontakte after refusing to reveal the identities of users involved in organizing pro-EU protests in Ukraine to security services.

“Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with the Internet business at the moment,” he said, adding that he was planning to create a new mobile social network.

VKontakte spokesman Georgy Lobushkin did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

With more than 100 million users across the former Soviet Union, VKontakte far outstrips Facebook’s presence in Russia.

Durov, who founded the company after leaving university, wrote on his VKontakte page Monday evening that he heard he was leaving the company from news reports.

“The shareholders weren’t brave enough to say it directly and I find out about my mysterious dismissal from media,” he wrote.

Durov had initially announced his resignation in a message on April 1 that many took for an April Fool’s joke. He later posted a message on VKontakte saying that he had not been serious.

However, VKontakte said Monday that he had been formally dismissed after failing to officially retract his resignation.

Durov claimed Monday that the company was now controlled by two close allies of Putin: Sechin, the chief executive of Russia’s largest oil firm Rosneft, and billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who partly controls the VKontakte’s majority shareholder Mail.ru group.

Durov previously sold his majority stake in the company to Mail.ru, which now controls 52 percent.

The remaining 48 percent is owned by investment group United Capital Partners, which Durov has accused of being tied to the security services and gaining its share through a hostile takeover.

Durov’s exit comes after he accused Russia’s Federal Security Service this month of trying to force him to give up the identities of people running group pages of Ukrainian pro-EU protests last year.

He said he had refused to release the information as it would be a “betrayal of millions of residents of Ukraine who trusted us.”

“Since December 2013, I have had no property, but I have something more important which is left: a clear conscience and my ideals, which I am ready to defend,” he said.

In March, the reclusive eccentric released a list of seven reasons to stay in Russia, including talented people, beautiful women, cultural riches and low taxes.

His departure comes after prominent economist Sergey Guriev last year fled Russia for Paris after claiming he too came under pressure from law enforcement agencies.

He said he could lose his freedom in a case linked to former Yukos chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who now lives in self-imposed exile in Switzerland after being released from prison in December.

Durov’s announcement came as opposition leader Alexei Navalny was Tuesday found guilty of slandering a lawmaker in a move his supporters say could see the prominent Putin critic jailed.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 23, 2014, on page 11.

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Summary

The maverick founder of Russia's top social network said Tuesday that he had fled the country after selling his share in the company under pressure from the security services.

Durov, who has been compared to Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg, claimed he was squeezed out of VKontakte after refusing to reveal the identities of users involved in organizing pro-EU protests in Ukraine to security services.

Durov claimed Monday that the company was now controlled by two close allies of Putin: Sechin, the chief executive of Russia's largest oil firm Rosneft, and billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who partly controls the VKontakte's majority shareholder Mail.ru group.

Durov previously sold his majority stake in the company to Mail.ru, which now controls 52 percent.


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