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Putin's Internet guy Who is German Klimenko, and how will he advise Russia's president?

Source: Meduza
Photo: Anatoly Zhdanov / Kommersant

In late December 2015, President Vladimir Putin invited German Klimenko (the founder of the online services MediaMetrics and LiveInternet, as well as the director of the Institute for the Development of the Internet) to become his advisor, making Klimenko an intermediary between Russian state officials and the country's Internet industry. In just his first month on the job, Klimenko made several headline-grabbing statements, floating ideas like blocking Google, Facebook, and Telegram, and banning the use of Bitcoins. Today, Russia's Internet industry has acclimated somewhat to Klimenko's tough talk, and industry leaders are now waiting cautiously to see if any of it becomes a reality. Meduza's special correspondent, Daniil Turovsky, reviews German Klimenko's appointment and the man's illustrious past.

On February 3, German Klimenko joined Vladimir Putin at Russia's “Safety on the Internet” conference. For much of the proceedings, while someone from the Interior Ministry's IT Crimes Division discussed the variety of cybercrimes, Klimenko buried his nose his in smartphone, using the time to comment on a photo from the conference, posted on Facebook, where he'd been tagged. In that picture, Klimenko was seated at a table alongside Sergey Plugotarenko and Sergey Grebennikov—fellow founders of IDI (the Institute for the Development of the Internet), which they created last year on behalf of Russia's Internet community to hold a “dialogue” with the Russian authorities. 

Vartan Khachaturov, who works for the Ministry of Communications, commented on the picture, writing, “It seems to me that these attendees will soon hold conferences among themselves to resolve all the questions of life, the universe, and so forth, so as to listen to each other’s keynote presentations on a weekly basis.” Another Facebook user teased that the event looked boring, to which Klimenko responded playfully, “What—you wanted blood and guts, or something?” In person, at the conference itself, Klimenko behaved very reservedly, answering questions curtly and quietly.

When Meduza's correspondent approach Klimenko for comment, he said the following: “How can you abandon your conscience so easily? Your chief editor [Galina Timchenko] said I scrounged my way to this job.” Nevertheless, Klimenko told Meduza that he hasn't seen Putin even once since his appointment, though he says he he understands that the very presence of an advisor “makes [Putin's] work significantly easier.” He added that many people have recommended that he be more restrained in his public statements, but he says he now answers to a single boss.

The appointment

On the eve of Klimenko’s appointment, he appeared “tired, pale, and worn-out,” one source told Meduza. “His work with IDI had tired him out. Not only did he have to gather a whole team together, but he was also required to be in constant communication with the Kremlin and [Putin's deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav] Volodin. He was always on edge.” Meduza’s contact claims the appointment came as a surprise to Klimenko, who was hoping merely for a meeting with the president do get a statement of support for IDI's work.

Artyom Kozlyuk of Roskomsvobody (a movement that monitors Internet freedom in Russia) says he thinks IDI was founded in the first place to “present Klimenko to Putin as the leader of the whole [Internet] industry.” “All of this was purely Volodin’s doing,” a top manager at a leading Internet company told Meduza (on the condition of anonymity).

Right after his appointment, Klimenko said he'd been taken by surprise. “It all happened very unexpectedly,” he said.

Putin’s fateful meeting with Klimenko was held on December 22, 2015, at the “Internet Economy” forum. The president held a discussion with a small circle of representatives of the industry, including Klimenko himself, as well as the founder of Yandex, Arkady Volozh, the owner of Rambler&Co, Aleksandr Mammut, the general director of RBC, Nikolai Molibog, the general director of Mail.ru, Dmitry Grishin, and the owner of InfoWatch, Natalya Kasperskaya. Vyacheslav Volodin was also present.

German Klimenko and Vladimir Putin at the “Internet Economy” forum in Moscow. December 22, 2015.
Photo: Kremlin Press Service

At the end of the meeting, Putin asked if there was anyone among the group “whom they trust absolutely, who understands the entire spectrum of problems, and who could energetically promote ideas in a practical manner—in the parliament, in the Kremlin, and throughout the regions.” 

No one said a word, and Putin laughed. Then Volozh pointed at Klimenko and said, “Maybe [you want] the person who brought us all here?” Putin then turned to Klimenko and asked, “And what is it you do? What's your line of work?”

“I have my own internet project,” Klimenko said. 

And right there on the spot, Putin offered him a job in the Kremlin. Klimenko said he'd need to think about it, and consult his wife and children. 

“Well, talk it over with your youngest son,” Putin recommended. “Because older kids are already full of their own ideas. Ask them and they'll just suggest a bunch of other things, leading you in the wrong direction. So discuss it with the five-year-old. It's a boy or a girl?”

“A boy,” Klimenko answered.

“Ah, a lad! Well, you tell him that you’ll help him regulate all movement on a country-wide level with the help of the Internet. He’ll support you.”

“Sure he will.”

“Don’t backtrack on this. Think it over, okay?”

Less than two weeks later, on January 4, 2016, Putin signed an executive order appointing Klimenko.

The Institute for the Development of the Internet

Vyacheslav Volodin played a special role in the founding of IDI. In an interview with the newspaper Vedomosti, Klimenko said the two are on “good terms.”

Sergey Plugotarenko, the director of the Russian Association for Electronic Communications (RAEC), is credited with coming up with the idea to create IDI. Plugotarenko's outfit, RAEC, brings together major Internet companies “for the formation of a civilized market” and it supports projects concerning the Internet sector (for example, in the field of education). In 2015, the Moscow Mayor's Office commissioned RAEC to manage the “Active Citizens” project, and the Federal Migration Service hired it to design its website.

RAEC’s office is located on the 46th floor of the Federation Tower in Moscow. At its entrance stands a cardboard figure of German Klimenko, while a video of the “RuNet Awards” (organized by RAEC) plays on a loop. On the wall, there's a photograph of Putin together with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Sergei Plugotarenko, the director of RAEC and one of IDI's founders.
Photo: Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS

In the fall of 2014, some time before the “Russian Interactive Week” conference, Plugotarenko and Sergey Grebennikov (the director of the Russian Center for Information Technologies—a regional organization whose stated purpose is to develop the use of Internet technology among citizens) sent a document to the Kremlin with their own observations about the development of Russia’s Internet. They also invited Volodin to attend their upcoming conference.

According to Plugotarenko, Russia's Internet associations at the time were discussing the idea of forming a new, unified body that could maintain contact with the authorities and lobby for the interests of the whole Internet industry.

Volodin arrived at “Russian Interactive Week” on November 10. About 30 Internet companies sent representatives to the closed-door meeting, which lasted two and a half hours. “Mr. Volodin just came to talk,” says Plugotarenko. “We spoke about the trends since 2012 toward new prohibitions and regulation of the Internet, and the need to take more proactive measures.”

At the meeting, Volodin appeared to be very interested, although, in Plugotarenko’s words, he “hadn’t fully understood everything.” He was particularly interested in electronic commerce. Coincidentally, a few months prior to this meeting, inspectors from the Investigative Committee of Russia approached Yandex.Money on suspicion of fraud during Alexey Navalny’s Moscow mayoral campaign in 2013 (the funds for which were raised with the help of Yandex's service).

Towards the end of the meeting, Plugotarenko proposed “continuing a dialogue,” while Volodin seized on the idea and approved the establishment of the Institute for the Development of the Internet, calling it an “excellent initiative.” They decided that IDI would become a unifying organization, which would consult the authorities on problems concerning the Internet and put forward its own proposals. “After the meeting, there was a feeling among everyone there that they'd achieved something great—like after [Dmitry] Medvedev attended our conference in 2008,” Plugotarenko says.

He and Grebennikov were joined in the process of creating the IDI by German Klimenko, who had already stated in 2013 that “RAEC had been absorbed into the state.” The Internet Initiatives Development Fund (an organization founded at Putin's request that invests in startups with funds from various commercial enterprises) and the Media-Communications Union (a public organization that represents the interests of telecom companies) also turned up alongside them.

IDI started work in April 2015, and Klimenko took charge of its council. Over the following months, IDI developed a so-called “road map” for the development of the Internet, which generally dealt with recommendations on how to “manage” the Internet in areas where it's still lacking. (For example, in healthcare, the group suggested the creation of electronic hospital records.) IDI built its “road maps” on the basis of proposals collected from several hundred experts. Among these experts were Ilya Podsevatkin and Kirill Grinchenko from MediaGvardiya, a political activist group that succeeded in getting a court to block on Vkontakte the Deti-404 project (which provides assistance to LGBT teenagers).

Yet the “road maps” didn’t only discuss liberalizing the use of the Internet. In October 2015, the group came out with a proposal to ban UDP—the protocol used in peer-to-peer torrent filesharing. 

“They'll point out to Putin that it's not entirely true that the CIA invented the Internet,” Roskomsvobody's Artyom Kozlyuk told Meduza, but “IRI is loyal, and approved by the powers that be.” 

A manager at one of Russia's leading Internet companies told Meduza that contact between the industry and the state wouldn't be impossible without IDI, but “a personal channel of communication doesn’t hurt.”

“We have never been told to act in a certain way,” objects Grebennikov. “We are in a position where we can influence matters, and if we see that something is black, we’ll never say it's white.”

His new post

It's probably fair to say that Klimenko is fast becoming one of the most visible figures in the Kremlin today. In the first month after his appointment, he gave nearly a dozen, quite long interviews. In discussions with journalists, Klimenko admitted that Google and Facebook could be blocked as organizations that fail to “cooperate with law enforcement agencies”. “What happens, if the state blocks Google and Facebook? Yandex and the others will begin to earn more, if they get a bigger slice of the pie. Google is eating our pies,” he said.

Discussing the messaging app Telegram, Klimenko said, “I am certain that either Telegram will start to cooperate, or it will be closed.” Pavel Durov, Telegram's founder, responded publicly that law enforcement agencies’ access to citizens’ personal correspondence would lead to the emergence of a black market of personal data, and that Telegram “would not give out personal details or encryption keys to third parties.”

Klimenko has also spoken out against digital currencies, saying, “There can be no alternative schemes such as Bitcoin. Do not forget that the classical attributes of an independent state are above all—borders and a currency. As soon as a state allows currencies issued by unknown persons to circulate on its territory, then the practice stops being an instrument of finance, and becomes counterfeiting.”

Russia's new Internet industry advisor has also reiterated many times that he's a loyal state official, promising to implement a hypothetical order to ban Google, to uphold the government's “design” (which he's described as “to interfere in our lives”), and he's said he “respects” Volodin's “impressive career.”

Sergey Grebennikov, a fellow IDI founder, says “Klimenko has caught the Internet virus. He’s happy whenever he can use an iPhone to do something that wasn’t possible before: whether it’s ordering a knife from Amsterdam or paying taxes.” According to Grebennikov, the remit of an advisor does not imply public activity, and Klimenko should “keep his finger on the pulse and keep the president informed on the subject.” Klimenko, Grebennikov says, has the chance to “open doors” in the Kremlin that will help IDI solve problems down the road.

German Klimenko (left) and Sergey Grebennikov, head of the Russian Center for Information Technologies.
Photo: Artem Geodakyan / TASS

One of Klimenko's associates told Meduza that he believes Klimenko is attempting to use his new position to climb even higher—all the way to the ministerial level, where he could make decisions himself, and not just take his advice and his papers to the right offices.

“You can laugh and joke about Klimenko, whom many find unpleasant,” an industry insider told Meduza, “but now he has an official position. How will he take advantage of it?”

Klimenko's views

German Klimenko is a renowned Internet troll and provocateur; he is also very easily offended and does not take any personal criticism well. “It’s easy to understand. He’s always acted like that with his friends, but now he’s faced with a wave of targeted trolling—at him, personally” one of his acquaintances told Meduza.

When Klimenko is offended, he doesn't hide it. He calls his critics “enemies,” and periodically shares insulting images in response (like this cartoon, where he screams an obscenity at a journalist). Klimenko is an active Facebook user and responds to the majority of posts mentioning him.

In November 2015, he uploaded a photo of himself and Plugotarenko attending a banquet at the Kremlin. He captioned the photograph, “Sergei and I did good representing the Internet at the reception.” When one commenter sneered, “What a shame that we forgot to choose you to represent us,” Klimenko responded, “Does your life suck so bad that you've got to come here to stir up shit? Just say as much and don't come at me online. I've got no problem kicking your fucking ass.”

Meduza’s sources in the Internet industry agree: Klimenko loves to shock, but he's capable of conducting himself in any number of ways. The industry is still waiting to see what his first concrete move is, after he's done making noise with loud declarations to the press.

Acquaintances describe him as a person who has no problem making friends. He's not an arrogant man, they say. “He always wanted and strived for this outcome. He wanted to work on Internet regulation much more than he ever liked working for LiveInternet. Many people change upon gaining positions of power. But he relies on public opinion. Klimenko can’t become a complete asshole, or else he’ll just pay the price himself,” his acquaintance told Meduza.

The expectations

Klimenko calls himself “the Internet guy,” and he repeats to anyone who will listen that both his position in the Kremlin and IDI are necessary to guarantee contact between the Internet industry and Russia's authorities.

To reinforce this idea, he tells a story about debates held three years ago about legislation Russia was designing to regulate bloggers. Recalling a meeting of Russia's Civil Chamber, Klimenko says, “Two legal experts—the authors of the law—are sitting there. We suggest our own version, and they’re surprised: ‘Why?! We already gave you the correct version!’ they responded. So we say ‘Well, at least read it. We’ll send it to you right now by email!’ And the deputy who started it all responded, ‘I don’t have an email address.’ Raucous laughter breaks out. That’s a perfect example of the depth of miscommunication.”

On live radio, Klimenko promised that his work in the Kremlin will be limited to economic concerns. “It’s no use coming to me with issues like ‘They gave me two years in prison for a retweet’—that’s not my problem,” he told Echo of Moscow.

Artyom Kozlyuk at Roskomsvobody expects the state to launch an offensive this year against anonymizing software like VPN clients and the Tor browser. These fears got partial confirmation when the Kremlin published executive orders issued by Putin after the Internet Economy forum, in which the president instructed the Federal Security Service to alter regulations on data encryption on the Russian Internet. Putin also ordered Russia's law enforcement agencies to upgrade their capacity for “monitoring of information threats on the Internet” and draft legislative proposals for “the regulation of citizens' data.”

Artyom Kozlyuk, the head of Roskomsvobody
Photo: Kozlyuk's Vkontakte page

Eight of Vladimir Putin’s orders were addressed personally to German Klimenko, who's now tasked with arranging the import substitution of foreign for domestic software, and levying a tax on online stores (like Google Play and the App Store, which currently pay no VAT in Russia on individual sales), among other things.

On February 2, 2016, Klimenko declared that IDI will “complete all the tasks on time.” (It's worth mentioning that most of Putin's orders were formulated on the basis of “road maps” prepared by IDI itself.)

Klimenko clarified to Meduza that the orders addressed to the Federal Security Service have nothing to do with him. He says working groups are being assembled to carry out the tasks assigned to him personally, and the work will be complete before Putin's June 1 deadline.

A top manager at one of Russia’s leading Internet companies says he has no idea what to expect from Klimenko, and that, on the whole, it's unclear to him what the authorities intend to do with the Russian Internet. “But it’s understandable why he was appointed now—there will be elections soon,” the source told Meduza. “He wasn’t put there for no reason, but in order to do something.”

Daniil Turovsky

Moscow