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Pavel Durov, Founder of Russia's #1 Social Network, Is Not Going to Prison (For Now)

It looks like Pavel Durov can finally return to Russia without a prison sentence threatening from overhead. That, for the moment anyway, seems to be true, now that St. Petersburg detectives have closed their inquiry [ru] into Durov's alleged involvement in an April 5, 2013, traffic accident that left one police officer with minor injuries. Despite finally establishing that it was indeed Durov driving the car, investigators today announced that they have been unable to find evidence that he acted with malicious intent. Accordingly, they have reduced [ru] the criminal charges to a misdemeanor, and sent the case to a local police branch for a decision about the appropriate penalty.

Pavel Durov, screenshot from YouTube clip, 20 February 2013.

Pavel Durov, screenshot from YouTube clip, 20 February 2013.

Durov—”Russia's own Zuckerberg” and creator of the country's most popular online social network, Vkontakte—has been living outside Russia since the car incident, presumably to avoid investigators’ summons to come in for questioning. Strangely (in light of today's news), police only two days ago extended by a full month [ru] their investigation into the hit-and-run case, which was due to expire for lack of charges. Though they only considered Durov a witness before today, police have now gone ahead and elevated his status to perpetrator, albeit with the crucial diminution of the crime from “using force against a state representative” to ”disobeying an officer of the law.”

What prompted this about-face in investigators’ behavior? Did someone high in the government intervene to “call off the dogs”? Or has Durov been dealing on the side, and could this end to his criminal case mean that he's struck a compromise with Kremlin authorities, who lately have demonstrated growing eagerness [ru] to exercise control over Vkontakte? Perhaps Moscow is trying to undo political damage inflicted on Russia's international reputation, following prominent economist Sergey Guriev's recent high-profile emigration to France?

Durov and his spokespeople, for their part, have maintained his non-involvement in the April 5 traffic incident. In late April, Dozhd Television network ran a story that he had permanently emigrated to the United States, to start a new social network, in response to United Capital Partners’ purchase of 48% of Vkontakte. Durov denied the rumor [ru] and insisted that he had not expatriated.

With the threat of prison removed, it now falls to Durov to return and prove that he has not left Russia for good. If he does come back, though, who's to say he won't again become a target?

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