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The founder and CEO of Russia’s answer to Facebook, VK, has fled the country after being forced out of control of the company after what he says was pressure from security services and powerful associates of President Vladimir Putin.
Pavel Durov, who founded VK (VKontakte, which means “in touch”) seven years ago after graduating from St Petersburg University, says Russia’s Federal Security Service had been trying to force him to release personal information on Ukrainian users involved in the country’s revolution.
He says he was forced out Monday after reading of his “resignation” in the press. Control of the social media website, which has more than 100 million users in Russia and former Soviet countries, had now fallen under the control of majority shareholders Igor Sechin and Alisher Usmanov.
Sechin is head of Kremlin-linked oil trader Rosneft, a former deputy prime minister and advisor to Putin. Usmanov is Russia’s richest man and co-owner of Mail.ru, the largest Internet company in the Russian-speaking world.
A 48 percent stake in the company is owned by United Capital Partners, a company that Durov claims is connected with the security services, although the company denies this. United Capital Partners said Tuesday that Durov had been seeking to “politicize the situation.”
Durov, who sold the last of his shares in VK in December, has been under pressure for months both because the site allows users to illegally download music and film and for its reputation as a platform for opposition activists. Russia’s Federal Security Service had demanded he release personal details on Ukrainian pro-democracy supporters and prosecutors had demanded he shut down a Russian site set up to support anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny.
The Internet entrepreneur refused to do so, claiming that to do so would be a “betrayal of trust.”
Three weeks ago, in a move interpreted as a reaction to the stress he felt under, Durov tendered his resignation as CEO of VK, but withdrew it two days later, claiming it had been an April Fools’ Day prank. But the company says the resignation was never officially retracted and Durov has now been formally dismissed.
In an interview with U.S. technology news site, TechCrunch, Durov said he had now left Russia and “had no plans to go back.”
“Unfortunately, the country is incompatible with the Internet business at the moment,” the VK founder said.
He added that he planned to create a new mobile-based social network.
Durov’s exit prompted a storm of complaints Tuesday on Russian social media sites. Some VK users set up a group to lobby for Durov’s reinstatement.
Political commentator, Pavel Salin, told the Moscow Times that the Kremlin may have seen VK as a threat to social stability.
“The Arab Spring showed that social networks were those platforms that consolidate people for political actions. VK is potentially a network that would be able to play such a role in Russia, since most of its users are liberal-minded.”
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