Russia

Why Russian Tech Entrepreneurs Are Willing to Risk Backing Navalny


Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny, holding a megaphone, addresses supporters and journalists in Moscow, on July 20, 2013

Photograph by Vasily Maximov/AFP via Getty Images

Opposition Leader Alexei Navalny, holding a megaphone, addresses supporters and journalists in Moscow, on July 20, 2013

A group of Russian Internet entrepreneurs has taken the unusual and potentially risky step of speaking out publicly in support of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.

In an open letter distributed on Aug. 7 to local media outlets, 37 leaders of Russian Web startups said they were backing Navalny’s campaign for mayor of Moscow, as a protest against corruption and other official abuses. They said they were speaking as individuals, rather than as representatives of their businesses.

“The situation in Russia is deteriorating beyond reasonable limits,” Kamil Kurmakayev, a Web entrepreneur who organized the effort, tells Bloomberg Businessweek in an interview. He says the government’s treatment of Navalny, who is running for mayor while appealing a recent conviction on theft charges, mirrors the experience of business people who see that “in Russia, the government can do anything. There is nobody who is protected against anything.” The government has not yet responded to the letter. The letter in Russian, is available here.

Kurmakayev, 33, a Stanford Business School graduate who co-founded an online marketplace, Wikimart, says that companies like his are finding it “harder and harder to attract foreign investment,” as potential investors worry about the lack of protection for property rights. And, he says, “our employees are thinking more and more about moving to other places, like Silicon Valley.”

It’s rare for Russian business people to criticize the government openly, and some who have done so—such as former oil company chief Mikhail Khodorkovsky—have landed in jail. More recently, the founder of social-media site VKontakte, who had clashed with the Kremlin, dropped out of sight after being charged with a traffic violation under murky circumstances.

Kurmakayev, though, says that entrepreneurs are becoming more willing to speak out. “It’s not normal that in private conversations people say one thing, and in public say another.” Representatives of Russia’s biggest Internet companies, such as VKontakte and search engine Yandex, aren’t among the signers of the letter. “These are big companies, they have to be more careful,” Kurmakayev says, “although we know from private conversations that the general sentiment is positive.”

The entrepreneurs’ letter underscores a sharp deterioration in relations between the Kremlin and the country’s high-technology industry since Vladimir Putin replaced Dmitry Medvedev as president last year. The Skolkovo technology hub, promoted by Medvedev as Russia’s Silicon Valley, has run afoul of government authorities.

Russia’s parliament has recently passed laws to tighten controls on the Internet. And after VKontakte founder Pavel Durov resisted government efforts to shut down opposition groups’ pages on the site, an investment fund with close ties to Putin took a 48 percent stake in the company, in what was widely seen as a government-sanctioned raid.

In yet another setback for entrepreneurs, Sergei Guriev, a former Medvedev economic adviser who was an advocate for business, recently fled the country to avoid possible prosecution. “People like [Guriev] command huge respect,” Kurmakayev says. “In our company we have employees who studied with him” at the New Economic School in Moscow, where Guriev was rector.

Signers of the open letter included founders of websites ranging from e-commerce to sports news and an online taxi-reservation service. “We are aware of thousands of entrepreneurs whom the courts have put in jail on fabricated charges,” they wrote. “The rule of law, an independent judiciary, and free elections—for us, these are not abstract ideas. Without them we cannot run a modern, sustainable business.”

Matlack is a Paris correspondent for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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