VKontakte Founder Flees Russia Claiming Persecution
Published: April 24, 2014 (Issue # 1807)
Pavel Durov, the founder of Russia’s largest social networking website, fled the country on Tuesday, a day after he said he was forced out as the company’s CEO for refusing to share users’ personal data with Russian law enforcement agencies.
Durov, who created VKontakte seven years ago, first announced his intention to leave the company on April 1 but withdrew his resignation letter two days later. On Monday, he announced that he had been fired and that the social network would now fall under “full control” of Kremlin-linked Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin and VKontakte billionaire shareholder Alisher Usmanov.
The move to oust Durov is widely seen as part of a wider campaign by the Kremlin to tighten its grip on the Internet, and observers said the authorities aimed to “cleanse” the management of Russian Internet companies in the hopes of gaining control of their content.
Last week, Durov said in an interview with the New Times that the Federal Security Service had turned up the pressure on VKontakte employees dramatically in recent months, demanding that Durov release personal information about Euromaidan activists. He said the Prosecutor General's Office ordered him to shut down a group on the website dedicated to anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, though he refused to do so.
“I am out of Russia and have no plans to go back,” Durov said Tuesday in an interview with Techcrunch, a news website focused on technology. He said he intended to launch a mobile social network outside Russia.
“Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with Internet business at the moment,” he said, adding that Russian authorities had targeted him after he publicly refused to cooperate with them.
United Capital Partners, a private company registered in Moscow that owns 48 percent of VKontakte, disputed Durov's statements on Tuesday, saying he had been seeking to “politicize the situation” because there were “serious legal claims” against him and he was suspected of embezzlement.
The company's statement also said his resignation was not an “accomplished fact” and that the decision had yet to be discussed by the board of directors. The company's executive director, however, said the decision was final.
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