Russia's largest social network is under the control of Putin's allies, founder says


(Hubert Burda Media / Flickr)

The embattled founder of VK, Russia's largest social networking site, said this week that the company is now "under the complete control" of two oligarchs with close ties to President Vladimir Putin. In a VK post published Monday, Pavel Durov said he's been fired as CEO of the website, claiming that he was pushed out on a technicality, and that he only heard of it through media reports. According to Durov, the site will now be under the control of Alisher Usmanov — Russia's richest man and the head of web giant Mail.ru — and Igor Sechin, CEO of a state-owned oil company and reportedly a close Putin ally.

"It's interesting that shareholders did not have the courage to do it directly," Durov, 29, wrote on his VK page. VK has more than 100 million users across Russia and nearby countries. It was launched in 2006, and is widely regarded as a "Russian Facebook" due to its similar design and functionality.

"in the Russian context, something like this was inevitable."

Earlier this month, Durov claimed that Russia's intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), had pressured him to hand over personal data on VK users involved in anti-government protests in Ukraine. Durov said he refused to do so, though he's gradually ceded control of the company in recent months and has long butted heads with government authorities. Experts have speculated that the Kremlin is looking to tighten its grip over VK and other social networks in the same way it controls print and TV media. Many Russians used VK to organize widespread anti-Putin demonstrations in 2011 and 2012, when thousands took to the streets to protest allegedly rigged elections.

Durov sold his remaining stake earlier this year to a company that Usmanov controls, after two co-founders unexpectedly sold their stakes to United Capital Partners (UCP), a Kremlin-friendly investment firm. He appeared to announce his resignation from the company on April 1st, but later claimed that it was an April Fools' joke, and that he would remain onboard. In a statement issued Monday, however, VK said that Durov submitted a resignation letter on March 21st and never withdrew it within the mandatory one-month window. Because of that, Durov said, he will be "automatically relieved" of his position.

It's not yet clear who will assume the role of CEO, but deputy chief executive Boris Dobrodeyev and executive director Dmitry Sergeyev will lead VK until a replacement is found. Russian news agency Interfax reported that Durov could still be offered a job as VK's "chief network architect," while UCP partner Yuri Kachuro told Forbes that his resignation isn't a "fait accompli," suggesting that the decision wasn't made with the full support of the board of directors. Kachuro also said that Durov is attempting to politicize the situation at a time of heightened internal turmoil at VK.

Durov, however, seems convinced that his time at VK is over. "Probably, in the Russian context, something like this was inevitable, but I’m happy we lasted seven and a half years," he wrote. "We did a lot. And part of what’s been done can’t be turned back."

The Verge
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