* Rivals file suits to assert influence over VKontakte
* Social network has been forum for anti-Putin protest
* Founder has teamed up with Putin ally Usmanov
By Maria Kiselyova
MOSCOW, April 7 A dispute between shareholders
in Russia's biggest social network escalated on Monday, as the
rivals took legal action to assert their influence over a
business that has been used as a platform for opposition groups.
Known as Russia's answer to Facebook, VKontakte has
been the focus of an ownership battle since last April when the
United Capital Partners (UCP) fund bought 48 percent of the
shares, becoming its then biggest shareholder.
Rival Mail.Ru, which has in the meantime joined
forces with VK founder and chief executive Pavel Durov to become
the biggest investor, contested the UCP transaction in a lawsuit
filed by a subsidiary.
Durov has clashed with authorities for providing a forum for
opposition activists to organise protests against Vladimir
Putin, including in 2011 when tens of thousands came out on to
the streets in the biggest challenge yet to the Russian leader.
But Mail.Ru is controlled by a Putin ally, Russia'a richest
man Alisher Usmanov, prompting liberal commentators to portray
the alliance between it and Durov as part of a wider Kremlin
clampdown on dissent.
Durov and Mail.Ru say they had pre-emptive rights to the
stake that UCP bought from VK co-founders last year.
The deal was followed by months of friction between UCP and
Durov that seemingly culminated last week in Durov's resignation
which he later revoked, saying his departure would have
threatened the company's future.
"I have repeatedly said it and will repeat it today, the
sale of 48 percent of shares was illegal, and UCP is not a
legitimate shareholder of VKontakte," Durov said on Monday on
his vk.com page.
VK, the second largest social media network in Europe after
Facebook, has 240 million separate user accounts and attracts
around 60 million users daily who log on to share news, views
Durov, whose success in building VK has drawn comparisons to
Facebook's founder Mark Zuckerberg, sold his 12 percent VK stake
in January to Bullion Development Limited, a company
beneficially owned by Usmanov's ally Ivan Tavrin, the CEO of
mobile operator Megafon.
Tavrin later sold Bullion to Mail.Ru, which now owns 52
percent of VK shares.
Konstantin Belov, an analyst at Uralsib, said the dispute
would likely have a limited impact on Mail.Ru shares but could
hamper the long-term development of the social networking site.
"Taking into account that the Internet market and social
media in particular are changing very fast, could it be that VK
will miss some of the changes on the market because of this
mess?" he said.
In a statement on Monday, Mail.Ru's Bullion said it had
filed a lawsuit against two VK shareholders in turn owned by UCP
and its managing partner Ilya Sherbovich - Blesmir Developments
Limited and Palagon Limited.
Bullion alleges that the sale of these firms to UCP was in
breach of the VK shareholder agreement, including a requirement
to offer shares in VK to the other shareholders first, and is
seeking to reverse the deal.
A spokesman for Bullion declined to name the court or say in
which jurisdiction the lawsuit had been filed.
UCP said its deal was legitimate.
"This is nothing more than an awkward attempt by Durov to
defend himself against our legitimate claims against him," said
UCP partner Yuri Kachuro in an email.
UCP said earlier on Monday it had begun legal action against
Durov and Mail.Ru over the launch of the Telegram instant
messaging application, developed by Durov.
UCP said Durov had "improperly diverted to himself corporate
opportunities which he was duty bound to pursue, if at all,
within the business of VK.Com" and that VK was "the proper
owner" of the Telegram business, the fund said in a statement.
(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova and Anastasia Teterevleva;
Editing by Elizabeth Piper and John Stonestreet)