A Russian businessman who has acquired a major stake in the country’s most popular social-media site is playing down concerns he has been brought in to crack down on activists who use the network to protest against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Last month a Moscow-based investment fund run by Ilya Sherbovich bought 48 per cent of VKontakte, which is similar to Facebook and has roughly 200 million registered users. The purchase caught many at VK by surprise. It also came just days before police raided the company’s headquarters in St. Petersburg as part of an investigation into a car accident and allegations the company’s founder, Pavel Durov, ran over a policeman.
Mr. Durov, 28, has vanished and many observers, and those inside VK, believe Mr. Sherbovich’s arrival and the police raid are part of an effort by the Kremlin to intimidate the seven-year old company, which has become a tool for protesters to communicate and organize.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail on Monday, Mr. Sherbovich denied any plot to go after those who use VK. “It was never our intention to ‘crack down’ on people using the network,” he said.
The purchase came about because of infighting between Mr. Durov and two other VK co-founders, he added.
“The founders were not on good terms, barely speaking to each other for the past year or so,” he said. “We started negotiating a deal with the sellers in early January. They were looking for an exit.”
He added that he is not planning any major changes at VK and he wants Mr. Durov to remain in charge. Mr. Durov owns 12 per cent of VK and has voting control over an additional 40 per cent owned by Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, a Putin ally, who helped launch VK. But he has clearly felt under pressure and hasn’t been seen in public since the police raid. His co-workers have called the car-accident allegations ridiculous, saying Mr. Durov doesn’t own a car or drive.
Mr. Sherbovich said he hopes Mr. Durov will clear up the allegations and return to VK. He also rejected suggestions he has been brought in to the company at the behest of Mr. Putin.
“Calling me an agent of Putin is very strange,” he said, adding that he has only met the President once at a fly-fishing event.
His objective at VK, he added, is to make the company more profitable. Mr. Durov has plowed nearly all of the profits back into VK and has kept advertising to a minimum. He has also publicly expressed disdain for making money and prides himself on living modestly.
Mr. Sherbovich said the company could become far more profitable with minor changes. “We want to change the way the company makes money. But do not expect any fast transformations,” he said.