Russian election: Opposition smart app removed as vote begins

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A specialist disinfects ballot boxes at a polling station during a three-day parliamentary election in Rostov-on-Don, Russia September 17, 2021Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The vote has been extended to three days because of the Covid pandemic

A Smart Voting app devised by jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been removed from Apple and Google stores on the day Russians start voting in parliamentary elections.

Russian authorities had threatened to fine the two companies if they refused to drop the app, which told users who could unseat ruling party candidates.

Parliamentary and local elections began on Friday and will last three days.

President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party is expected to win.

Although a total of 14 parties are taking part in the vote, many candidates seen as anti-Putin are barred from running, including anyone associated with Navalny's opposition movement. Some prominent Kremlin opponents have been forced to leave Russia.

Voters are electing 450 MPs for the Duma (parliament) in Moscow and a number of cities have introduced electronic voting. For the first time since 1993, election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will not be present due to "limitations" imposed by Russian authorities.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Public video feeds of voting have been banned but official observers were allowed to watch

Long queues were seen outside some polling stations on videos published on social media.

Interfax news agency reported that this was especially the case outside police stations. The Kremlin spokesman rejected claims that it was an indication of people being put under pressure to vote.

Independent vote monitoring group Golos detailed allegations of ballot stuffing among almost 1,800 examples of possible election violations.

Threat of big fines

The Smart Voting app was not available for download on the Google and Apple stores in Russia on Friday.

On the eve of the election, senior officials at the communications regulator threatened big fines for any companies that "systematically violate" its demands. IT companies had been warned that refusing to remove the app would be seen as illegal interference in the vote.

On Thursday night, Google Docs went down in some regions and the Smart Voting-bot on the Telegram platform came under a powerful attack aimed at taking it offline.

Google and Apple representatives met a Russian Federation Council (upper house of parliament) commission on Thursday.

Navalny ally Ivan Zhdanov said the two companies were making a big mistake.

He linked to an Apple statement that explained the Smart Voting app had been removed because it was illegal in Russia and that Navalny's FBK anti-corruption organisation had been designated as extremist.

A source close to Google told the BBC that it had removed the app in the face of legal demands from the regulator, and threats of criminal prosecution.

Russia's communications watchdog blocked the Smart Voting website earlier this month, and a Moscow court banned search engines from any mention of it.

Until now, relatively small fines have been imposed on non-Russian tech companies, including Twitter and Facebook, for not deleting content considered illegal by the Russian government. But the media watchdog has now threatened to target their turnover too.

Last March, the media watchdog said it was slowing down the speed of Twitter because it had failed to remove 3,000 posts relating to suicide, drugs and pornography.

The big social media companies were also threatened with fines if they did not delete posts urging young people to protest.