October 19, 2021

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Navalny app removed from online stores as Russian polls open

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A woman prepares to cast her ballot at a polling station during the 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)

AP

An app created by allies of imprisoned Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny disappeared from Apple and Google stores on Friday as polls opened across Russia for three days of voting in a parliamentary election.

It comes as Russian authorities seek to suppress the use of Smart Voting, a project designed by Navalny to promote candidates that are most likely to defeat those backed 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, for which control of the parliament is key.

Apple and Google have come under pressure in recent weeks, with Russian officials urging them to remove the app, which features Smart Voting, saying failure to do so will be interpreted as interference in the election and threatening them with fines.

Last week, Russia’s Foreign Ministry summoned U.S. ambassador John Sullivan over the situation.

On Thursday, representatives of Apple and Google were invited to a meeting in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, the Federation Council. The commission said in a statement after the meeting that Apple agreed to cooperate with the Russian authorities.

Apple and Google have not responded to a request for comment.

Google was forced to remove the app because it faced legal demands by regulators and threats of criminal prosecution in Russia, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter who also said Russian police officers visited Google’s offices in Moscow on Monday to enforce a court order to block the app. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Friday that the presidential administration “definitely, of course” welcomes the companies’ decision to remove the app, as it comes in compliance with Russian laws. Peskov said that the app was “outside the law” in Russia.

In recent months, authorities have unleashed a sweeping crackdown against Navalny’s allies and supporters in an effort to suppress Smart Voting.

After recovering from poisoning with a nerve agent last year, Navalny was given a 2½-year prison sentence for violating parole over a previous conviction. He says both the poisoning and the conviction were politically motived — charges the Kremlin denies.

His top allies were slapped with criminal charges, and his Foundation for Fighting Corruption, as well as a network of regional offices, have been outlawed as extremist organizations. That has exposed hundreds of people associated with the groups to prosecution. Many of his top associates have left the country. About 50 websites that his team ran have been blocked, and dozens of regional offices have been closed.

The authorities have moved to block the Smart Voting website as well, but some internet users can still access it. Navalny’s team has also created a Smart Voting chat bot on the messaging app Telegram and published a list of candidates Smart Voting endorses in Google Docs and on YouTube.

Navalny’s close ally Ivan Zhdanov on Friday tweeted a screenshot of what appears to be an email from Apple, explaining why the app should be removed from the store. The screenshot cites the extremism designation for the Foundation for Fighting Corruption and allegations of election interference. “Google, Apple are making a big mistake,” Zhdanov wrote.

Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s top strategist, wrote on Facebook that the companies “bent to the Kremlin’s blackmail.” He noted that the move doesn’t affect users who have already downloaded the app, and that it should be functioning correctly.

Peskov on Friday called Smart Voting “another attempt at provocations that are harmful for the voters.”

As voting got underway in Russia on Friday morning, long lines and large crowds formed at some polling stations in Moscow and other cities. Russian media attributed them to state institutions and companies forcing their employees to vote.

Peskov dismissed the allegations and suggested that those queuing at polling stations came there voluntarily because they had to work on the weekend or wanted to “free up” 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. Frankly speaking.”

She added: “And I also want to know who leads us.”

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