Is The Kremlin Trying To Force The Russian “Mark Zuckerburg” Out Of The Country?

A seemingly endless supply of astonishing dash-cam videos have come out of Russia in the last few years, but this one is still impressive for the driver’s apparent brazenness. A white Mercedes is pulled over on St. Petersburg’s Nevsky Prospect by police for a series of serious traffic violations. When the police attempt to walk over to the car, the driver takes off, despite the fact that the two officers are hemmed in beside the Mercedes by additional traffic and any potential exit from the situation is blocked by additional traffic. In the process, one of the officers is hit by the car. As the officers proceed to question the driver, another individual appears to approach them. The driver runs away and the second man, who allegedly identified himself as the driver’s “security guard” appears to block the officers from pursuing.

On April 9 2013, Russian news outlets began reporting that the driver was believed to be none other than Pavel Durov, the 28-year-old founder of Russia’s most popular social network, VKontakte (Russian for “in contact”), which boasts over 100 million active users. Durov is sometimes referred to as “The Russian Mark Zuckerberg” and his website is often claimed to be closely modelled on the success of a better known social networking site. NTV reported that Durov had been identified by several St. Petersburg “internet detectives” after a number of pictures were discovered of him “standing next to” the white Mercedes in question.

News also emerged that one of the officers had recognised Durov from a photograph. VKontakte put out an official statement claiming that “Pavel Durov doesn’t own a car, he walks to work or gets the metro” (the car in question is in fact registered to VKontatke’s Vice President Ilya Perekopsky, who resides in Moscow). Durov, for his part, also denied any involvement in the incident and has not officially been named as a suspect, merely a potential witness.

Several days later on April 16, investigators from Russia’s Investigative Committee conducted a search of VKontakte’s offices in St. Petersburg and Durov’s home in connection with alleged hit and run. The next day, it was announced that Durov’s business partners, Lev Leviev and Vyacheslav Mirilashvili, who together own 48 per cent of VKontakte’s voting shares, had sold them to United Capital Partners. UCP group’s President, Ilya Sherbovich, sits on the board of directors of both Rosneft, (Russia’s state oil company) and Transneft (Russia’s oil pipeline monopoly). According to Durov, the sale was made without his knowledge, a violation of VKontakte’s internal rules, which state that those already holding shares in the company should be offered priority in any sale. Durov continues to control 52 per cent of VKontakte’s voting shares.

Last month, Novaya Gazeta, an independent Russian newspaper, claimed to have received information that showed Durov had offered to assist the Russian authorities by providing information on VKontakte users who were engaged in opposition demonstrations and actions. VKontatke’s press secretary denied the claims and further evidence of Durov’s complicity in assisting the government failed to materialise. On the evening of the April 21, Durov appeared to be the victim of a malicious provocation again, as respected Russian journalist Leonid Parfenev reported on independent TV channel Dozhd that Durov had already in fact emigrated to Buffalo, New York. As it turned out, Dozhd had been wildly misinformed. Durov denied the claims and noted he hadn’t been to America for over a year.

Image Credit: Y

Image Credit: Screenshot from Youtube video by NTVRU

There is little doubt that someone is sending Durov a series of fairly stern warnings. VKontakte has drawn government ire before, but Durov has always kept a low profile and avoided taking sides. The accusation that Durov was at the wheel of the Mercedes is questionable, to say the least. There would be little motivation for Durov, an extremely wealthy individual, to futilely attempt to drive off in a country where traffic police are almost synonymous with corruption. The video shown on television is grainy and seemingly incomplete. While the security guard has been questioned, no details of his identity have been given. The ease with which the driver seems to make his escape is also suspicious.

If Durov really hit a cop while evading police he would be facing up to five years in prison, but as yet, the investigative committee have restricted themselves to searching his office and home. At the same time almost half the voting shares in his company have been bought up by a representative of the heavily securitised oil and gas industry, seemingly without his knowledge. In the wake of all this, the false report fed to Dozhd that he had emigrated seems to be more of a suggestion than anything else.

If this all seems eerily familiar, that’s because we’ve seen this before. When Putin wanted to consolidate his control over the traditional media (which had been a constant headache during his Chechen campaign), he sent the two largest independent media moguls, Vladimir Gusinsky and Boris Berezovsky a stern warning to leave the country or face criminal investigation. They took the hint and left. Gusinsky was later stripped of his Russian citizenship. Berezovsky took his own life in London last month. With social media a rapidly growing source of information in Russia, it appears VKontakte now finds itself in the Kremlin’s sites, just like Gusinsky’s MediaMost before it. Whether Durov decides to stay or leave, he would be wise to look to his country’s recent history and Russia’s 99 per cent conviction rate.

This piece first appeared on the International Political Forum at http://internationalpoliticalforum.com/is-the-kremlin-trying-to-force-the-russian-zuckerberg-out-of-the-country/

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