A former co-head of Putin’s 2018 presidential campaign, Yelena Shmeleva, has been appointed to head internet giant Yandex’s Public Interest Foundation, a body created last year as part of a deal with the Kremlin. The 11-member Foundation has management rights, and a veto over transactions involving over 10 percent of Yandex stock.
- The appointment of Shmeleva as director of the Public Interest Foundation was reported Wednesday by Russian media outlets, immediately sparking fears about Kremlin’s influence over Yandex. Not only did Shmeleva co-head Putin’s 2018 re-election campaign, but she is in charge of the Talent and Success Fund that manages one of Putin’s pet projects, the Sirius education centre. Sirius offers courses to gifted Russian students, and was thought up by Putin, who also proposed the name and personally interviewed Shmeleva for the job. One of the members of Talent and Success’ board of directors (chaired by Putin) is cellist Sergei Roldugin, allegedly a secret caretaker for the Russian leader’s private wealth. Putin regularly visits Sirius, which is located in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.
- The Public Interest Foundation was set-up in November as part of an agreement between Yandex and Kremlin officials to give the state a greater say over the running of ‘Russia’s Google’. The deal came after months of pressure on the internet giant, including draft legislation that would have destroyed its shareholder structure by banning foreigners from owning more than 20 percent of Russian internet companies. The Foundation does not own Yandex shares, but has management functions and appoints two ‘super-directors’ to the company’s 12-seat board.
- The executive director of the Foundation is Yandex director Yelena Bunina, while the other 9 members include Yandex founder Arkady Volozh; Alexander Dyukov, chairman of the board of state-owned Gazprom Neft; Alexander Shokhin, head of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs; and Andrei Sharonov, head of Skolkovo business school.
Why the world should care
Yandex’s agreement with the Kremlin over a new management structure was a pioneering compromise for the Russian internet market, but the appointment of Shmeleva is a worrying sign for the company’s independence. Investors will be watching closely to see how the Public Interest Foundation will exercise its powers.