The founder of Russia’s highly successful Facebook-clone has fled the country along with his core technical team, and is looking for a new place to set up shop. That place should be Estonia, and our government should work hard to make it happen.
If there really was a Western conspiracy to fundamentally alter the fabric of Russian society, then Pavel Durov’s photo would be on the wall of the secret bunker full of cackling political scientists, as the model for future Russians. In his early twenties, he founded a social network that closely mimicked the Facebook model, down to the site’s layout and design. But while it could be argued that his VKontakte site ripped off a lot of Facebook’s ideas, the differences were things that made it better suited to the peculiarities of Russia’s market and audience. Like the country’s other massively successful Internet venture, Yandex (which, roughly, did the same thing for Google), this was an example of what can be achieved by talented and motivated Russians in an environment that is largely free from the meddling of a corrupt and oppressive government.
That silver age of Runet is now at an end. For the last few years, there has been infighting at VK, between Durov and the company’s major shareholders – institutional investment funds with inevitably close ties to the Kremlin. The conflict even spilled out into the media, with odd hatchet pieces about the money VK was spending on its CEO’s lifestyle and travel. Durov certainly presents a public image of a man who knows how to enjoy himself – more Jobs than Zuckerberg, with his lanky frame, affinity for turtlenecks, and devotion to Oriental spirituality. But the business expenses of a private enterprise’s chief executive are rarely an appropriate target for public outrage – especially in a country where the most visible and persecuted opposition leader (Alexey Navalny) began his political career exposing massive graft in state-owned enterprises by using a minority shareholder’s right of access to records. The conflict at VK finally came to a head this spring, when Durov announced his resignation on April 1st, then disavowed it as an April Fool’s prank; the board of directors chose not to see it as such. According to Durov’s own statement, the Russian secret police came to him in February and demanded the release of personal information pertaining to VK users who were active in the Euromaidan protests; Durov rejected these requests on the grounds that Ukrainian residents were not subject to Russian laws. The resulting pressure led him to sell his remaining stake in the company, leave the country, and promise to never go back – at least not until things change drastically.
As of today, Durov and a group of his best and most trusted software developers are camped out somewhere in Europe, looking for a country where to establish a permanent home for their next venture. Durov’s Facebook account (ironically) now contains a plea for advice and a wishlist:
We are choosing a new home, a country that will allow us to develop our projects with privacy and freedom of speech in mind… we dislike bureaucracy, police states, big governments, wars, socialism and excessive regulation. We like freedoms, strong judicial systems, small governments, free markets, neutrality and civil rights.
I may be biased, but I feel that Estonia is a perfect candidate for Team Durov’s next base of operations. It is a small but extremely IT-savvy country, with a widespread appreciation of IT as a driver of national growth. The right of every citizen to broadband access is recognized in law, implemented with state-owned backbones leased to private ISPs who deliver ultra-high speeds to consumers at reasonable cost. Estonia has strong data protection and digital privacy laws, and the greatest blunder our long-serving former prime minister, Andrus Ansip, ever made in domestic politics was intending to sign the ACTA treaty (the resulting protests forced him not to seek re-election). Much of the country’s bureaucracy has been obviated by streamlining processes into online systems – the motto is that Estonia’s population is too small to waste labor on unproductive jobs, and we export our small government expertise through the e-Government Academy. There is an unusually high level of public trust in law enforcement agencies, and the last time the government tried to use the security services against its political rivals, a series of mysterious leaks seriously damaged the ruling party. The judicial system is often criticized for not being harsh enough on violent offenders, but it also acquitted the four opposition activists whom the authorities tried to blame for the Bronze Soldier riots. Despite having free universal healthcare, childcare and higher education, Estonia is one of the EU’s least socialist countries – in fact, when our Social Democrat party joined the government, the new coalition’s first announcement was a plan to cut taxes. We have never waged an offensive war, unless you count the Battle of Võnnu as an invasion of Latvia. The country is not entirely free of regulations, but the administrative burden on businesses is minimal, and the tax code is extremely straightforward (flat income tax, zero corporate tax). Civil rights? We are about to legalize gender-neutral civil unions. As a bonus, half the population speaks fluent Russian, and you can select that language option at every ATM, ticket sales machine, and online store.
Estonia loves to distance itself publicly from Russia and emphasize its firm Westward course, away from our Eastern neighbor’s “sphere of influence”. Giving asylum to dissidents is a natural part of this policy. But rather than inviting Edward Snowden (which would be pissing off the Americans just when we need them most – even if they have been behaving badly), or offering citizenship to Garry Kasparov just to rub our disdain in Moscow’s face, we should bring Durov’s team to Tallinn. This is the option that reinforces all the best things about Estonia, all the best ways in which we would like to see ourselves and be seen.
Durov says that if any government representatives want to help, they can contact him at email@example.com. We’ve got a President, a Prime Minister, and even a special Vice Chancellor in charge of IT. One of them could surely spare a few minutes today to blast off a quick email.