Apple and Google cave in under Kremlin pressure and remove key Alexei Navalny app

The app “Smart Voting” is seen on an iPhone screen in a user’s hand – AP

Apple and Google on Friday removed Alexei Navalny’s app from their online stores in Russia, buckling under Kremlin pressure as voting in Russian parliamentary elections kicked off.

The app that lists candidates for parliament, endorsed by the jailed opposition leader’s team in every Russian electoral district, disappeared from AppStore and Google Play overnight and was only available outside Russia.

Just on Thursday, pro-Kremlin lawmakers hauled Apple’s representatives over the coals, demanding that the app be deleted and threatening them with hefty fines and criminal charges.

The Kremlin insists that Smart Voting, a tactical voting campaign devised by Mr Navalny as a way to spite the ruling party, is illegal since Mr Navalny’s organisation was banned as extremist earlier this year.

The extremism designation has left a countless number of Mr Navalny’s supporters over board, barring them from standing in election.

Mr Navalny has been promoting Smart Voting as the only available means to undercut the dominance of United Russia in the State Duma.

Smart Voting published a list of non-United Russia candidates in each electoral district as the choice of the opposition on Thursday, which was when election authorities could no longer strike a candidate off the ballot.

United Russia’s popularity ratings have been declining for years, mostly recently hitting a 13-year low as Russians tend to blame the ruling party, not President Vladimir Putin, for economic woes.

Russian authorities blocked access to Smart Voting’s website earlier this year but attempts to get Apple and Google to remove the app have been unsuccessful so far.

Mr Navalny’s allies on Friday published an emailed notification from AppStore, saying that the app has been removed since it “includes content that is illegal in Russia.”

Andrei Klimov, a Russian lawmaker crusading against what he calls “Western interference”, on Friday welcomed the big tech's “right decision to comply with Russian laws and the Russian constitution.”

Google and Apple representatives were grilled by Mr Klimov at a meeting in parliament that was held behind closed doors on Thursday.

Russia’s foreign ministry suggested that by hosting the app the big tech was interfering in

Russian elections, and the foreign ministry spokeswoman, went as far as to claim that the app’s developers were linked to the Pentagon.

Kremlin critics on Friday described the removal of the app as the big tech’s most blatant act of censorship in Russia.

“Removing the Navalny app from stores is a shameful act of political censorship,” Ivan Zhdanov, a close Navalny ally, tweeted on Friday.

“Russia’s authoritarian government and propaganda will be thrilled.”

Western tech giants have been under pressure in Russia for years since the Kremlin started worrying about the opposition’s growing reach to Russians on online platforms.

Google has been slapped with numerous fines this year over its refusal to remove opposition videos from YouTube which has emerged as an important tool for the Russian opposition.

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