Apple and Google removed an app created by the opposition that told voters which candidates were likely to defeat Russian-backed opponents, under Kremlin pressure. The move was made as polls opened for three consecutive days of voting in Russia’s parliamentary elections.
Some polling stations saw unexpectedly long lines. Independent media suggested that this could be because state institutions or companies were forcing employees into voting. This election is widely considered to be an important part in President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to consolidate his power ahead of 2024 presidential elections, where control of the State Duma (or parliament) will be crucial.
Russian authorities sought to stop the use of smart voting, which was devised by Alexei Navalny to counter the Kremlin-backed United Russia party.
In recent weeks, Apple and Google were under intense pressure from Russian officials who told them to remove Smart Voting apps from their online stores. Officials stated that failure to do so would be considered interference in the election, and they could face fines.
Last week, the U.S. Foreign Ministry summoned Russia. Ambassador John Sullivan was summoned by Russia’s Foreign Ministry to discuss the matter.
Representatives of Apple and Google were invited Thursday to a meeting at the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house. In a statement, the Council’s Commission on Protecting State Sovereignty stated that Apple had agreed to cooperate with Russian authorities.
Apple and Google didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press on Friday.
According to someone with direct knowledge, Google had to remove the app due to legal demands from regulators and threats to criminal prosecution in Russia. Another person who has also spoken out said that Russian police visited Google’s Moscow offices Monday in order to enforce a court order to stop the app. Because of the sensitive nature of the matter, the person spoke under anonymity.
Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesperson, said Friday that the presidential administration “definitely and of course” welcomed the decision by the companies, as the app was “outside of the law” in Russia.
Authorities have launched a massive crackdown on Navalny’s aides and attempted to stop Smart Voting.
Navalny is currently serving a 2 1/2-year sentence in prison for violating parole in relation to a conviction that he claims is politically motivated. Many of his top aides were charged with criminal offenses and have fled the country. In a ruling that exposed hundreds of people who are associated with Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption and a network of regional offices to prosecution, the foundation was declared an extremist organization.
His team has blocked approximately 50 websites and closed dozens of regional offices. Although the Smart Voting website has been blocked by authorities, some users still have access to it. Navalny’s team also developed a Smart Voting chatbot on Telegram, and published a list with Smart Voting endorsers on Google Docs as well as on YouTube.
Ivan Zhdanov, a close ally of Navalny, tweeted Friday a screenshot from what appears to be an Apple email explaining why the app should not be removed from its store. The screenshot refers to the Foundation for Fighting Corruption’s extremism designation and claims of election interference. Zhdanov wrote, “Google and Apple are making a huge mistake.”
Navalny’s top strategist Leonid Volkov wrote on Facebook that the companies had “bent to Russian blackmail.” He also noted that users who downloaded the app before the change didn’t impact them and that the app should still be working properly.
Volkov said to the AP that the app ranked fourth in Russia on Google Play among social networking apps, and third on the App Store for the same category.
Peskov called Smart Voting Friday “another attempt to provoke the voters.”
Fears of forced voting were raised by the long lines at polling stations in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities.
David Kankiya, a representative of the independent monitoring group Golos, told AP that Friday was easier for companies and state institutions to make people vote because they had less attention from observers.
He said that some observers are busy with work while others are studying at university. “Monitoring can be more difficult to organize so there are less risks for the administrative machine.”
Peskov denied the allegations and said that polling station workers were there to help “free up Saturday and Sunday”.
Putin, who is self-isolating from Tuesday, after many people within his circle were infected by COVID-19, voted online on Friday — an option which is available in seven Russian regions. Kremlin critics claim that this leaves room for manipulation.
Anna Trushina (radiologist at a Moscow hospital) told AP that she went to a polling place “to be truthful, because we were forced(to vote). Sincerely speaking.
She said, “And I also want know who leads us.”
St. Petersburg media reported on possible cases of “carousel vote,” where voters cast their ballots at multiple polling stations. A video journalist from AP saw the same voters at two polling stations. One of them stated that the group had previously gone to the wrong station.
Local elections commissioner member posted video where a man tried to cast multiple ballots, and was then confronted with a poll worker. The man in the video claimed that he obtained his ballots from a subway station.
Even though Google and Apple don’t report Russian revenue, they still have a lot to lose, according to Ruben Enikolopov (a professor of political economy at the New Economic School, Moscow).
He said, “It’s an enormous market, 140 millions people.” They cannot afford to lose such a large market. While it won’t really impact their financial performance, it will be a major blow and they will make every effort to avoid losing.
Enikolopov suggested that both companies might also be trying to avoid problems for employees based in Russia.
Russian authorities have put pressure on Western tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Twitter over their role in promoting dissent. The platforms were accused of failing to remove protest calls and they were fined.
Similar challenges are facing the companies elsewhere. India’s government is at odds with Twitter. It accuses Twitter of not complying with new internet regulations, which digital activists claim could restrict online speech.
Turkey passed a law in 2013 that raised concerns about censorship. It also gave authorities more power to regulate social media companies. They were also required to create local legal entities, a requirement that Facebook and Twitter met.
Since June, Twitter in Nigeria has been blocked. The ban was imposed after the company removed a controversial tweet from the president of the country. However, the government has promised that it will be lifted soon.