Faced with pressure from the Kremlin, Apple and Google on Friday removed an opposition-created smartphone app that tells voters which candidates could defeat those backed by Russian authorities, as polls opened for a three-day ballot in parliamentary elections. Russian.
Russian authorities are trying to suppress the use of Smart Voting, a strategy designed by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny. The elections are widely seen as an important part of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to cement his hold on power ahead of the 2024 presidential election, in which parliamentary control will be key.
Apple and Google have been under pressure in recent weeks, with Russian officials telling them to remove the Smart Voting app from their online stores. Otherwise, it will be interpreted as meddling in the elections and make them subject to fines, officials said.
Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan on the matter.
On Thursday, representatives from Apple and Google were invited to a meeting in the upper house of the Russian parliament, the Federation Council. The Council Commission on State Sovereignty Protection said in a subsequent statement that Apple has agreed to cooperate with the Russian authorities.
Apple and Google did not respond on Friday to a request for comment from the Associated Press.
Google was forced to remove the app because it faced legal requests from regulators and threats of criminal prosecution in Russia, according to one person with first-hand knowledge of the matter who also said Russian police officers visited the Google’s offices in Moscow on Monday to enforce a court order to block the app. The person spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday that the presidential administration strongly welcomes the companies’ decision to remove the app because it complies with Russian laws. Peskov said the app was outlawed in Russia.
In recent months, authorities have unleashed a broad crackdown on Navalny’s allies and engaged in a massive effort to suppress Smart Voting.
Navalny is serving a 2-year prison sentence for violating probation on a previous sentence he claims is politically motivated and his best allies have been charged with criminal offenses. Many have left the country. The Navalny Anti-Corruption Foundation, as well as a network of regional offices, have been outlawed as extremist organizations in a ruling that exposes 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 moved to block the Smart Voting website as well, but some internet users can still access it. Navalny’s team also created a Smart Voting chat bot on the Telegram messaging app and posted a list of Smart Voting approved candidates in Google Docs and on YouTube.
Western tech giants like Twitter, Facebook and Google have come under pressure from the Russian government this year for their role in amplifying dissent. Authorities accused the platforms of failing to remove the protest requests and imposed heavy fines on them.
Businesses face similar challenges around the world. In India, the government is in a stalemate with Twitter, which it accuses of failing to comply with new internet regulations.
Turkey passed a law last year that raised fears of censorship, giving authorities more power to regulate social media companies that were also required to establish local legal entities a request Facebook and Twitter have met.
Twitter has been banned in Nigeria since June, when the company removed a controversial tweet from the country’s president, though the government promised to remove it soon.
Navalny’s close ally Ivan Zhdanov tweeted a screenshot of what appears to be an email from Apple on Friday, explaining why the app should be removed from the store. The screenshot cites the Foundation for Fighting Corruption’s designation of extremism and allegations of election interference. Google, Apple are making a big mistake, Zhdanov wrote.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s top strategist, wrote on Facebook that companies have bowed to the Kremlin’s blackmail. He noted that the move doesn’t affect users who have already downloaded the app and that it should work fine.
Volkov told the AP last month that at one point in August, the app ranked third on Google Play in Russia among social networking apps and fourth on the App Store in the same category.
Peskov on Friday called Smart Voting another attempt at provocation harmful to voters.
As voting began on Friday, long lines and large crowds formed at some polling stations in Moscow and other cities. The Russian media attributed them to state institutions and companies forcing their employees to vote.
David Kankiya of Golos’ independent election monitoring group told AP that it was easier for state institutions and companies to force people to vote on Friday because there was less attention from observers.
Some observers are busy with work, others with university studies, as it is a working day and not a weekend, ”he said. “Monitoring is more difficult to organize, ergo, there are less risks for the administrative machine.
Peskov denied the allegations and suggested that those at the polling stations were there voluntarily because they had to work on the weekend or wanted to break free on Saturday and Sunday.
Putin, who has self-isolated since Tuesday after dozens of people in his inner circle were infected with COVID-19, on Friday voted online for an option available this year in seven Russian regions. Kremlin critics have said it leaves room for manipulation.
Dr Anna Trushina, a radiologist at a Moscow hospital, told AP she went to a polling station to be honest, because we were forced (to vote) by my job. Frankly.
He added: And I also want to know who leads us.