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The Business of Endorsing Navalny

RuNet Echo This post is part of RuNet Echo, a Global Voices project to interpret the Russian language internet. All Posts · Learn more

One of the mainstays of Russian politics for the last ten years has been that Russian business stays out of politics. Late last week, 37 Russian Internet-industry entrepreneurs tried to shatter that taboo, when they signed a public “social contract” endorsing [ru] Alexey Navalny’s run for mayor of Moscow.

Many in the blogosphere and the independent media have responded to the “Letter of 37” [ru] with exclamations that Russia is experiencing a watershed moment in the political consciousness of its business class. Analyst Tatiana Stanovaya called [ru] the contract “the first vocal claim by entrepreneurs on an active political position.” Vedomosti reporters said the document set a new precedent [ru] for businesses that previously never risked openly supporting the political opposition. Blogger Oleg Kozyrev congratulated [ru] Navalny on Russia’s first social contract to meet “Western standards,” and RuNet guru Anton Nosik beamed pride [ru] that his colleagues had finally spoken out, instead of turning to various Kremlin clans for patronage and protection.

Alexey Navalny, Rally held in support of political prisoners in Moscow, 26 July 2012, photo by Maria Pleshkova, (c) Demotix.

Alexey Navalny, Rally held in support of political prisoners in Moscow, 26 July 2012, photo by Maria Pleshkova, (c) Demotix.

The “Letter of 37″ is not without its shortcomings, of course. While the pledge of entrepreneurial support is undeniably symbolic, that, so far, is where the pact begins and ends. Navalny’s campaign manager, Leonid Volkov, admitted [ru] on August 7, 2013, that they’ve yet to receive a single donation from any business.

Some liberal-leaning news outlets like Slon.ru and Novaya Gazeta have begun publishing materials about certain members of “the 37” (including profiles and interviews [ru]), and Navalny-critics online like Maxim Kononenko and the blogging group vvv-ig have also unveiled detailed looks at the contract’s signatories. Kononenko, challenging the contract’s claim that it represents businesspeople of “the knowledge economy,” offered up brief summaries [ru] of 30 of the businesses on the list, concluding that 27 add nothing to Russia’s intellectual property. Vvv-ig’s August 7 post [ru], on the other hand, contains vitriolic attacks against each of the entrepreneurs who endorsed Navalny. If Kononenko’s attempt was to smear the social relevance of the contract’s companies, vvv-ig set out to blacken the individuals who created those businesses.

Vvv-ig’s screed—drenched in anti-Semitism and homophobia—is in many ways a typical example of the hate-blogging often directed at opposition figures like Navalny. Buried in places throughout the post and articulated in its conclusion, however, is a provocative (conspiracy) theory about what brought together 37 seemingly random Internet entrepreneurs. According to vvv-ig, Navalny’s social contract signatories owe their skins to the same venture capitalists. Vvv-ig fingers Anatoly Chubais (head of the Russian Nanotechnology Corporation) as the culprit here (responsible for “sucking blood from the Russian economy”), but the post in other parts also incriminates Renaissance Capital and Mail.ru.

While accusations against Chubais might seem like wild speculation, the idea’s basic premise (that bigger financial interests lie behind Navalny’s “independent backers”) received additional support from Navalny’s political frenemy, Vladimir Milov, who in a message on Twitter credited investment tycoon Mikhail Fridman with organizing the contract:

While there is no hard evidence [ru] that Navalny’s “List of 37” business supporters rely on Alpha Group for funding, it is worth remembering that some Internet entrepreneurs refused Navalny’s call. According to Kamil Kurmakaev (one of the signatories), some refused to join the list for a lack of interest in politics, some because they support Navalny’s rival, Sergey Sobyanin, and others because they feared negative consequences.

The contract itself is the result of Navalny’s direct lobbying efforts on July 24, 2013, when his campaign met with an unspecified number [ru] of “Internet entrepreneurs,” to pitch them the idea of “participating in fundraising.” The following day, roughly two weeks before the unveiling of the social contract, Dmitri Navosha posted a long note [ru] on Facebook, indicating his participation in the meeting with Navalny, and explaining his decision to donate half his paycheck to Navalny’s campaign. While there is no record of what companies were represented at the July 24 gathering, exactly 300 Facebook users “liked” Navosha’s post, among whom are six other “List of 37” names: Zotova, Kurmakaev, Lysenko, Preobrazhensky, Saltanov, and Sharipova. Among the remaining 294 Facebook users are individuals tied to several other RuNet companies, including WeClever, Ozon.ru, LookAtMe.ru, Yandex, thelocals.ru, begun.ru, re-construktion.ru, and so on.

Were these the enterprises too uninterested, too unsupportive, or too afraid to lend their names to Navalny? Milov did single out one person, after observing that not everyone bowed to Alpha Group’s supposed orchestration of the “List of 37”: Ekaterina Skorobogatova, Facebook’s Growth Manager for Russia and the CIS [ru]. As it happens, Skorobogatova, too, “liked” Navosha’s post about meeting with Navalny. If she attended, perhaps she found Alpha Group’s political machinations less enjoyable?

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