FILE PHOTO: The Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny's Smart Voting app is seen on a phone, in Moscow

As Russian polls open, app that promotes opposition candidates removed from online stores

MOSCOW (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.

Russian authorities are seeking 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 polls, in which control of parliament will be 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 issue.

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

Apple and Google have not responded to a request from The AP 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 engaged in a massive effort to suppress Smart Voting.

As Navalny is serving 2½-year prison sentence for violating parole over a previous conviction he says is politically motivated, his top allies were slapped with criminal charges. Many have left the country. Navalny’s Foundation for Fighting Corruption, 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 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.

Western tech giants, such as Twitter, Facebook and Google, this year have also come under pressure from the Russian government over their role in amplifying dissent. The authorities accused the platforms of allegedly failing to remove calls for protests, and levied hefty fines against them.

The companies face similar challenges around the world. In India, the government is in a standoff with Twitter, which it accuses of failing to comply with new internet regulations that digital activists say could curtail online speech and privacy.

Turkey passed a law last year that raised fears of censorship, giving authorities greater power to regulate social media companies which were also required to establish local legal entities — a demand that Facebook and Twitter have bowed to.

Twitter has been banned in Nigeria since June, when the company took down a controversial tweet by the country’s president, though the government has promised it will be lifted soon.

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.

Volkov told the AP last month that at some point in late August, the app ranked 3rd on Google Play in Russia among social networking apps and 4th on the App Store in the same category.

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.”

Chan reported from London. Vladimir Kondrashov in Moscow also contributed reporting.