Vladimir Milov

Free Russia Foundation Vice President for International Advocacy

Sep 29, 2022
Yandex is the Kremlin’s Weapon Against Democracy

Right now, an important lawsuit is pending at the European Union court, filed by Tigran Khudaverdyan. With this suit, Khudaverdyan, former CEO of Yandex (a Russian Google-wannabe tech giant), is challenging the sanctions levied against him over the Ukraine war, calling them “discriminatory and disproportionate,” and arguing that he personally “does not support the Russian intervention in Ukraine”.

Over the years, Yandex has portrayed itself as a progressive, independent, privately-owned business, operated by westernized technocrats, advancing knowledge-based economy, and helping Russia transition away from Putin’s primitive extraction economy dominated by oligarchs. However, even the most superficial examination of the actions by Yandex and its executives bring to light a long history of close cooperation with the Russian authorities and security services, actively facilitating systemic suppression of freedom of speech and political expression.

Over the years, Yandex has consistently and methodically suppressed independent content and news critical of the government or countering the Kremlin’s propaganda by removing such materials from its newsfeed. This is not inconsequential for the Russian public opinion, as boasting over 22 million daily users, Yandex News is one of Russia’s top web news aggregators.

In 2020, it was revealed that Yandex intentionally promoted fakes in order to discredit Russia’s prominent opposition leader Alexey Navalny, pushing such content to the top of the search results churned up by the Yandex search engine. In February 2017, after Navalny had launched his presidential campaign challenging Putin, Yandex Money immediately disabled Navalny’s electronic wallet crowdfunding his campaign. In 2021, in the leadup to the State Duma elections, Yandex delisted Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ campaign website, making the real site vanish from the search engine results, and replacing it with a fake impostor site created by the Kremlin.

In 2019, Yandex confirmed that it shared encryption keys for users data with the FSB, Putin’s lead for political repressions and surveillance.

None of this is surprising, given that Yandex is de-facto controlled by the Russian state. Until 2019, the state-owned Sberbank held a golden share of Yandex, with veto rights over key mergers and acquisitions.  In 2019, the golden share was transferred to a ‘supervisory board’ composed of state loyalists, who continue to execute major veto power. In a letter announcing these developments to Yandex employees, company’s founder Arkady Volozh justified this scheme with “the need to protect the country’s interests.” It is unclear how such ‘interests’ are determined without a legitimate publicly elected government and in the absence of free elections. Also puzzling the impetus for a ‘private independent company’, that Yandex claims to be, to define and guard ‘state interests’.

When Putin visited Yandex’s headquarters in 2017, a lavish reception was organized in his honor by the corporate bosses, while some employees whose loyalty was uncertain were blacklisted and told to stay home that day, and others ordered to remain still at their desk for the entirety of the visit to preclude provocations. Tigran Khudaverdyan, who is currently trying to convince the EU court that he “does not support the actions of the government of the Russian Federation”, was present during the visit and clearly approved Putin’s policies— as did other owners and managers of the company.

Moreover, were it not for Yandex’s direct assistance in government’s efforts to suppress opposition between 2017-2021, Russia today would have had a much better chance for political change. The results of the presidential and parliamentary elections may have been different, and Russia may not have started the war on Ukraine. 

The threat posed by Yandex is not limited to Russian civil society. The company is actively expanding its influence in the region, including Kazakhstan, Israel, Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Armenia — sharing users’ personal data with the Kremlin, and facilitating Putin’s disinformation campaigns to brainwash people. The court should trash Khudaverdyan’s preposterous lawsuit without hesitation, and the European Union should urgently consider ways to curb Yandex’s creep over Eurasia.