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A man looks at a computer screen showing logos of Russian social network VKontakte. (SERGEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS)
A man looks at a computer screen showing logos of Russian social network VKontakte. (SERGEI KARPUKHIN/REUTERS)

A Russian social network tale: Censorship and a CEO on the run Add to ...

The allure of Telegram’s secure messaging is obvious for Russian political activists, and it is easy to imagine how it would benefit from having a self-styled fugitive from Russian authorities as its public face.

UCP argues that the new app is a direct competitor to VK’s own instant messaging product. It also alleges in court that Mr. Durov created it using VK’s resources.

“We believe that Mr. Durov breached his fiduciary duties to shareholders and diverted an important corporate opportunity that rightfully belonged to VK to himself and, moreover, used the resources of VK to support his personal business,” Victoria Lazareva, co-managing partner at UCP, said in an e-mail.

The blogger Mr. Nossik, on the other hand, dismisses that as “another way to attack Durov.”

The UCP suit is just one of several legal entanglements that have left the company reeling. Mail.ru has sued UCP in a London court, contesting UCP’s purchase of its 48-per-cent stake last year, while Mr. Durov has sued UCP in the U.S., accusing it of “racketeering” over its attempts to gain control of Telegram.

Attempts to reach Telegram and Mail.ru Group were not returned. A VK spokesman, George Lobushkin, declined to comment.

An uncertain future

His legal woes aside, Mr. Durov is pressing ahead with Telegram. Two days after his ouster from VK, he wrote on his Facebook page that he and 12 engineers “have a temporary HQ in Central Europe, and we are now looking for a permanent base to work from” and “to develop our projects with privacy and freedom of speech in mind.” Telegram’s website says it is based in Berlin, and has financial and technological backing from the Durov brothers.

Nearly three months after he left VK, the company is still without a CEO as shareholders battle over who should succeed him.

It isn’t for lack of trying. More than once, the Mail.ru shareholders have proposed Boris Dobrodeev, a current VK employee, as Mr. Durov’s successor. But UCP refused to approve him over concerns that he is not independent enough. He used to work at Mr. Usmanov’s USM and is the son of Oleg Dobrodeev, the head of Russia’s largest state-run media corporation.

There are other advantages for Mr. Usmanov if he gains full control of VK. His group also owns 100 per cent of Odnoklassniki, Russia’s next most popular social network, and it would have a near-monopoly in the regional market if it were to take over VK outright.

UCP says it wants to hire a headhunter to compile a shortlist, and has put forward two candidates of its own – the VK co-founder Mr. Leviev, and Alexei Zakharov, CEO of the online recruiting site Superjob.ru. UCP might even agree to Mr. Dobrodeev as CEO if Mail.ru meets a number of conditions, including setting key performance indicators for the job and helping VK gain control of Telegram, but Mail.ru has resisted.

“It is certainly not in the best interest of the company or its users to function without a CEO for such a long period of time,” Ms. Lazareva told The Globe and Mail. “It is a huge disappointment to us that Mail.ru refuses to agree to a proper and transparent search process.”

Whoever controls VK could have far-reaching implications for millions of social media users in Eastern Europe. Mr. Putin has treated the Internet warily of late, noting in an April speech that it started “as a special CIA project” and that “special services are still at the centre of things.”

In May, the Russian President signed a restrictive new law requiring online voices who get more than 3,000 daily hits per page to register as a media organization, giving them all the legal responsibilities of a publisher. And on July 4, Russia’s parliament passed a law mandating Internet companies to store Russians’ personal data inside the country. Critics fear it is designed to track meddlesome users by ensuring easy access to their personal information, and could force foreign-run social media like Facebook and Twitter to close down in Russia.

VKontakte is still growing, but whether it will continue to thrive in such an environment remains to be seen. Meanwhile, Mr. Durov’s whereabouts are still unknown, and he is holding tightly to his libertarian instincts – his latest appearance on social media was also on July 4, quoting from the American Declaration of Independence.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” he wrote.

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