Navalny app deleted as Russians vote after crackdown


The run-up to parliamentary elections was marred by an unprecedented crackdown on Kremlin critics and independent media – Copyright AFP / File GREG BAKER


App of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny telling Russians how to vote to overthrow President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party disappeared from Apple and Google on Friday as three-day parliamentary elections marked by historic crackdown against the opposition were opening up across the country.

Parliamentary and local polls in the world’s largest country spanning 11 time zones began at 8 a.m. on Friday.

The run-up to parliamentary elections was marred by an unprecedented crackdown on criticism from the Kremlin and independent media, Putin’s main enemy, Alexei Navalny, imprisoned in January, and his organizations subsequently banned.

Navalny’s “Smart Voting” app was not available on Google and Apple stores on Friday morning after Russia lobbied US tech giants to remove it, accusing them of election interference.

Navalny’s allies denounced this decision as an “act of political censorship”.

“They gave in to the Kremlin’s blackmail,” Navalny’s ally in exile Leonid Volkov told Telegram. Google and Apple have not commented on the move.

Navalny called on prison supporters to download the app and urged them to primarily support Communist Party candidates in order to weaken the ruling party.

With many voters frustrated with declining incomes and not planning to vote, Putin urged the Russians to elect a “strong” parliament.

“I am counting on your responsible, balanced and patriotic civic position,” Putin said Thursday in a video address.

The 68-year-old Russian leader is currently in isolation after the Kremlin this week announced an outbreak of coronavirus cases around him. He said Thursday that “dozens” had tested positive.

– Call from prison –

Navalny had called on the Russians to put aside apathy and eliminate pro-Kremlin candidates from power.

“Aren’t you interested in trying?” He said in an Instagram post, adding that even in prison he remained optimistic and urged Russians to do the same.

“I really don’t think I can change anything,” said the 45-year-old, who barely survived poisoning with the nerve agent Novichok which he blamed on the Kremlin.

Allies of the opposition politician were barred from running and his team promoted Navalny’s tactical voting plan, urging his supporters to support candidates best positioned to beat Putin’s United Russia candidates.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed the developers of the Navalny app had ties to the Pentagon, and last week Moscow summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan for meddling by US giants of technology in polls.

Recent surveys by public pollster VTsIOM have shown that less than 30% of Russians plan to vote for the ruling party, compared to 40-45% in the weeks leading up to the last parliamentary elections in 2016.

But United Russia is expected to retain its two-thirds majority in the Duma, enough to change the constitution as it did last year with reforms allowing Putin to extend his rule until 2036.

Voting takes place both online and in person, to an extent that officials say is aimed at limiting voters’ potential exposure to the coronavirus.

The opposition says the multi-day vote gives officials more opportunities to schedule elections.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said in August it would not send observers to Russia for parliamentary elections due to a number limit imposed by Moscow.

– ‘Protests are unlikely’ –

The campaign has been lackluster, and critics say the vote is little more than a final endorsement by Putin’s allies.

Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Andrei Kolesnikov said the Kremlin needs a flexible legislature before 2024, when Putin’s current term ends.

Widespread allegations of voter fraud in the 2011 parliamentary elections sparked large protests, but political observers do not expect protests this time around.

“Once the Duma elections are over, protests are unlikely, as the opposition and civil society are demoralized,” Kolesnikov wrote. “The regime’s repression will intensify.

In addition to United Russia, 13 other parties are standing for election.

In total, 225 of the 450 members of the State Duma are elected from party lists, while the rest are chosen from single-member constituencies.

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