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After rocket failure, Navalny points to Russia’s tech disasters

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The popSLATE box is seen in front of Alexei Navalny in his video

by Sarah Hurst

In a week when Russia’s rocket launch from its new Vostochny space centre ended in disaster, with satellites crashing to the ground, Alexei Navalny is talking about the failures of Russian tech on his new video. Navalny demonstrated a “popSLATE” iPhone cover with an electronic screen developed by the company Plastic Logic, which is owned by Rusnano. Former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, the head of Rusnano, gave Navalny the popSLATE during a debate, and according to Navalny, only he and Vladimir Putin have one.

Chubais has even compared the popSLATE to a rocket, Navalny said. Rusnano invested 10 billion roubles ($171.2 million) in Plastic Logic – which was originally a British company – to acquire a 100-percent stake in it. Plastic Logic had already unsuccessfully tried to market flexible screens and tablets to compete with the iPad before it was purchased, Navalny said.

In the video Navalny tests the popSLATE and finds it to be useless. It won’t charge, so he has to plug it in. It shows a random selection of images on the screen, but the popSLATE app doesn’t work, so he is unable to customise his image. He attaches it to his phone, but the best result he can get is the Rusnano logo.

Indiegogo investors lose everything

An article in The Register from March of this year had the headline, “$1m Popslate e-ink screen venture tanks, Indiegogo backers flame out.” It reported, “Yashar Behzadi and Greg Moon, the founder of Popslate, the eponymous company behind the popSLATE 2 secondary smart screen, explained that the company will be dissolved, no devices will be shipped, and no refunds will be issued. Oh, and no further explanation will be offered.”

Popslate had intended to produce a phone, but called it quits after developing the “clunky e-ink case for the iPhone,” the article said. The company had raised over $1 million on Indiegogo, but donors were not going to get their money back. No mention was made of the involvement of Plastic Logic or Rusnano in the venture. A popSLATE page on the Plastic Logic website has no information on it. Plastic Logic and popSLATE announced their partnership in a press release in September 2013.

“This is quite sad because it’s quite possible that this box could become the symbol of Putin’s modern Russia,” Navalny said, holding up the box for the popSLATE. Between 2010 and 2014 Chubais earned an average of 210 million roubles ($3.6 million) annually, Navalny said.

Chubais defends former associate

On this issue, though, Navalny may be in tune with the Kremlin. What he didn’t mention was that Chubais appeared in court a few days ago at the trial of former Rusnano head Leonid Melamed, who is accused of embezzlement. The case looks like one of Russia’s typical show trials intended to demonstrate seriousness about cracking down on corruption, but it was interesting that Chubais came and not only said that Melamed had done nothing illegal, but also that he himself was responsible for the transaction deemed corrupt. This contrasted vividly with Rosneft boss Igor Sechin refusing four times to appear as the main witness at the trial of former Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev.

It has long been rumoured that Putin wants to arrest Chubais too and punish him for the Wild West-style privatisations of the 1990s that he led under President Boris Yeltsin. Ulyukayev was also seen as one of the slightly more liberal members of Putin’s government. Navalny was right in drawing attention to Russia’s wasted tech investments, but at the same time Putin may silently thank him for making this video.


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