MOSCOW – An app created by ally of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny disappeared from Apple and Google stores on Friday as election votes opened over Russia during a three-day vote in parliament choice.
Russian authorities are trying to suppress the use of Smart Voting, a project designed by Navalny to promote candidates who are likely to defeat those supported by the Kremlin. This weekend’s election is widely seen as an important part of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to cement his grip on power ahead of the 2024 presidential election, where parliamentary control will be crucial.
Apple and Google have been under pressure in recent weeks, with Russian officials urging them to remove the app, which includes Smart Voting, and saying that failure will be interpreted as disruption of the election and threatening them with fines.
Last week, Russia’s foreign ministry summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan to the matter.
On Thursday, representatives of Apple and Google were invited to a meeting in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, the Federation Council. The Council’s Commission for the Protection of State’s Sovereignty said in a statement after the meeting that Apple agreed to cooperate with Russian authorities.
Apple and Google have not responded to a request for comment from the AP.
Google was forced to remove the app because it faced regulatory requirements from regulators and threats of criminal prosecution in Russia, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter who also said Russian police visited Google’s office in Moscow on Monday to enforce a court decision. to block the app. The person spoke anonymously due to the sensitivity of the problem.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday that the president’s administration “definitely, of course” welcomes companies’ decision to remove the app, as it complies with Russian law. Peskov said the app was “outlawed” in Russia.
In recent months, the authorities have unleashed an extensive attack on Navalny’s allies and engaged in a massive effort to suppress Smart Voting.
Since Navalny is serving a 2-year prison sentence for violating a suspended sentence due to a previous conviction that he says is politically motivated, his highest ally received a sentence for prosecution. Many have left the country. Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation, as well as a network of regional offices, have been banned as extremist organizations in a verdict exposing hundreds of people associated with the groups to prosecution.
About 50 websites run by his team have been blocked and dozens of regional offices have been closed. Authorities have also moved to block the Smart Voting website, but some Internet users can still access it. Navalny’s team has also created a Smart Voting chatbot in the messaging program Telegram and published a list of candidates that Smart Voting approves in Google Docs and on YouTube.
Western technology giants, such as Twitter, Facebook and Google, have this year also come under pressure from the Russian government over their role in reinforcing dissent. Authorities accused the platforms of allegedly failing to remove calls for protests and imposing substantial fines on them.
Companies face similar challenges around the world. In India, the government is on hold with Twitter, which it accuses of not following new internet rules that digital activists say could limit online numbers and privacy.
Turkey passed a law last year that raised fears of censorship, giving authorities greater power to regulate social media companies that also had to set up local legal entities – a requirement that Facebook and Twitter have bowed to.
Twitter has been banned in Nigeria since June, when the company took down a controversial tweet by the country’s president, although the government has promised that it will be lifted soon.
Navalny’s close ally Ivan Zhdanov tweeted on Friday a screenshot of what appears to be an email from Apple and explains why the app should be removed from the store. The screenshot quotes the extremism designation for the Foundation for Fighting Corruption and accusations of election disorder. “Google, Apple is making a big mistake,” Zhdanov wrote.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief strategist, wrote on Facebook that the companies “bowed to the Kremlin’s blackmail”. He noted that the move does not affect users who have already downloaded the app and that it should work properly.
Volkov told AP last month that sometime in late August, the app ranked 3rd on Google Play in Russia among social networking apps and 4th in the App Store in the same category.
On Friday, Peskov called Smart Voting “another attempt at provocations that are harmful to voters.”
When the vote began in Russia on Friday morning, long queues and large crowds formed at some polling stations in Moscow and other cities. Russian media attributed them to state institutions and companies that forced their employees to vote.
Peskov dismissed the allegations and suggested that those queuing at the polling stations came there voluntarily because they had to work on the weekend or wanted to “liberate” Saturday and Sunday.
Dr. Anna Trushina, a radiologist at a Moscow hospital, told the AP that she came to a polling station in central Moscow “to be honest, because we were forced (to come and vote) by my work. Honestly.”
She added: “And I also want to know who is leading us.”
Chan reported from London. Vladimir Kondrashov in Moscow also contributed reporting.