Russian government continues to silence rivals as parliamentary elections begin

Russians on Friday began three days of voting to determine their next parliament, with the outcome largely expected to be preordained. But there was an unexpected development Friday, when Google and Apple blocked Russians from downloading the main opposition party’s app. As Nick Schifrin reports, it’s just the latest successful attempt by the Russian government to silence its rivals.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Well, today, Russians began three days of voting to determine their next Parliament, or Duma. The outcome is largely preordained.

    But there was an unexpected development today, when Google and Apple blocked Russians from downloading the main opposition party's app.

    Nick Schifrin is back now with how this is just the latest successful attempt by the Russian government to silence its rivals.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Russia's far east today, it looked like a parliamentary election, candidates on a poster, voting booths, ballot boxes.

    In Moscow, the patriarch considered his options and used a ballot box for one. Even President Putin himself voted from his office.

    But what preceded today, months of unprecedented crackdown. The authoritarian state targeted dissent, banned protests, and labeled the chief opposition party, led by Alexei Navalny, the equivalent of al-Qaida.

    To evade government censorship, Navalny's campaign created an app that endorsed independent candidates. But, today, Apple and Google removed the app from their Russian stores. The Kremlin had pressured the companies and labeled the app extremist, as the leader of the pro-Kremlin Liberal Democratic Party said today.

    Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Leader, Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (through translator): It's dictatorship and extremism. They don't have a right to interfere. It's manipulation. You violate the democracy, you should be arrested.

    Leonid Volkov, Chief of Staff to Alexei Navalny: We have been very disappointed. And, indeed, I have to admit that it's quite a blow to our campaign.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Leonid Volkov is Navalny's chief of staff, and a mainstay of his online campaigns. We first met him on the campaign trail in 2017, when Navalny was running for president.

  • Leonid Volkov:

    What happened today is that Google and Apple for the first time caved to censorship demands from the Russian government. The only thing that the application does, it actually delivers Alexei Navalny's endorsements about the candidates in the upcoming election.

    So it's pure censorship, because, I mean, there is nothing that could be extremist about the list of endorsements.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What does that say about American tech companies adhering to, or, as you put it, caving to Russian government demands?

  • Leonid Volkov:

    They have been blackmailed by state terrorists. So, Putin reportedly was demanding them to delete our application from the stores, threatening like physical harassment, like arrests of Google and Apple's employees in Russia.

    You just can't appease terrorists this way. So, only the appetite of the terrorists will grow, and their next demands will be even more ambitious.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Putin's critics accuse him of manipulating the election to ensure he can control Parliament when his term expires in 2024.

  • Leonid Volkov:

    If he decides to run again, or if he decides to choose some puppet, his so-called successor, it will be very challenging again in 2024.

    So, he needs the Duma, the Parliament, to be completely, like, sterile, completely under his control. This is not a fair election. This is not an election at all. Still, it's some procedure which allows us to put stress on Putin, to create problems for United Russia, his party.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What is your message to the West, to the Biden administration, to European officials who are watching this election and trying to decide how to respond?

  • Leonid Volkov:

    Putin is playing the game of chicken with you. And this situation with Google and Apple has shown that he once again outplayed you. The world needs that those technological platforms don't become regimes' little helpers.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Navalny's campaign has documented what it calls Putin's secret wealth and urges the West to target Putin's billionaire loyalists.

  • Leonid Volkov:

    You could hardly find a bank account labeled Vladimir Putin anywhere, but we pretty much know and we have a lot of proof that the bank accounts of those 35 people are actually, effectively, Putin's accounts.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the West hasn't agreed to target Putin's riches. And there's little preventing the result of a preordained election.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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