Russian opposition accuses ‘shameful’ US tech giants of aiding election crackdown

Google and Apple remove jailed campaigner Alexei Navalny's app as Russia opens polls

People queue to cast their votes at the entrance of a polling station during parliamentary elections in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. Russia has begun three days of voting for a new parliament that is unlikely to change the country's political complexion. There's no expectation that United Russia, the party devoted to President Vladimir Putin, will lose its dominance in the State Duma. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

People queue to cast their votes at the entrance of a polling station during parliamentary elections in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Sept. 17, 2021. Russia has begun three days of voting for a new parliament that is unlikely to change the country's political complexion. There's no expectation that United Russia, the party devoted to President Vladimir Putin, will lose its dominance in the State Duma. (AP Photo/Pavel Golovkin)

 

Allies of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny have accused US tech giants Apple and Google of a “shameful” act of censorship after they bowed to pressure to remove his tactical voting app from online stores as the country’s parliamentary elections began.

Russia had threatened to take legal action against the companies and their employees if they failed to delete a “smart voting” app devised by Mr Navalny’s team to identify the opposition candidates with the best chances of beating rivals from the Kremlin-allied ruling party, United Russia.

“Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship. Russia’s authoritarian government and propaganda will be thrilled,” said Ivan Zhdanov, a close aide to Mr Navalny, who was jailed in January when he returned home after being treated abroad following a near-fatal poisoning in Siberia.

Mr Zhdanov posted a link to a letter from Apple explaining that the app had been removed because it contained content that is illegal in Russia, and because the country had labelled Mr Navalny’s anti-corruption organisation as “extremist”.

“It is a pity that at the moment of confrontation between honest people and a corrupt regime, these companies played into the hands of the latter,” said Kira Yarmysh, Mr Navalny’s spokeswoman.

Russian diplomats and politicians had previously described the presence of the Navalny app on Google’s and Apple’s online stores as a form of US interference in Russia’s election, which will culminate on Sunday after two days of early voting.

“We don’t like it – it’s another absolutely provocative effort that in actual fact works against voters,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Friday when asked about Mr Navalny’s “smart voting” strategy.

“Both platforms [Google and Apple] received the appropriate notification and in accordance with the letter and spirit of the law they evidently took this decision” to remove the apps, he added.

‘Right direction’

Anatoly Klimov, chairman of the Russian senate’s commission on defending state sovereignty and preventing foreign interference, said the US firms had made “a step in the right direction” following talks with the commission on Thursday.

“After we held a conversation, I believe that Google and Apple drew the only correct conclusion, which is simple: everyone in Russia must abide by the Russian constitution and Russian laws,” he said.

In the run-up to the parliamentary elections, Mr Navalny has been jailed, would-be opposition candidates have been excluded over links to his organisation and for attending anti-Kremlin protests, and scores of journalists, independent media outlets and NGOs have been declared “foreign agents” for allegedly receiving funding from abroad.

United Russia is expected to win the elections but has seen its ratings fall as the coronavirus pandemic and rising prices have hit many Russians hard.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has announced cash hand-outs to pensioners, police and military before the ballot, which analysts say will be extremely difficult to monitor due to the introduction of a three-day election period and online voting.

Voting for Russian residents in Ireland will take place from 8am-8pm on Sunday at the Embassy of the Russian Federation at 184-186 Orwell Road in Dublin.

“According to our data, more than 5,000 Russians live in Ireland,” said Victoria Loginova, press secretary at the embassy. “Prior registration is not required to vote at the embassy. Citizens are included in the voter list upon their attendance at a polling station.”