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Activists Accuse Google, Apple of Caving to Pressure from Kremlin

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Google and Apple are accused of bowing to Kremlin pressure in the banning of an app that would have enabled Russian voters to access information. Credit: The Pancake of Heaven! /CC BY-SA 4.0

Activists from Russia’s embattled opposition on Friday accused tech giants Google and Apple of caving to pressure from the Kremlin after they removed a voting app from their stores on the first day of the country’s parliamentary election.

The app had been created by allies of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, who had been poisoned last year, purportedly by the Russian government, for his bold stance against Russian president Putin.

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Navalny, who had been allowed to be transported to Germany for treatment after his poisoning, survived the attempt on his life only to return to Russia to continue his campaign against the entrenched political system there.

The Russian opposition figure was jailed in March of 2021 on charges that he supposedly violated the terms of an old, politically-motivated conviction.

His political compatriots were subsequently barred from running for office because of their association with Navalny.

The app created by his adherents would have provided Russians with information on those running for office in a bid to make a stand against the ruling United Russia party which supports longtime President Vladimir Putin.

Navalny’s movement was outlawed by Russian courts in June, prompting an outcry from the West that the country was stifling all political dissent.

Some members of the upper house of the Russian Parliament met with representatives from Google and Apple representatives before the election in order to tell them to remove the app.

If they refused to do so, they would face penalties, including fines and criminal prosecution.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan was also summoned to Russia’s Foreign Ministry before the election, where he took complaints that the app amounted to American meddling in the internal affairs of the country.

Google then removed the app from its offerings after being told that Google employees living in Russia could even be jailed, according to a person familiar with the situation who spoke to reporters after asking not to be identified.

Russia’s national communications regulator Roskomnadzor also demanded that Apple and Google take the app off their platforms, threatening fines if they did not do so.

There has been no immediate response from Apple and Google on the matter.

Navalny ally Leonid Volkov, bluntly accused the technology giants of giving into pressure in what he described as a blackmail campaign on the part of the Kremlin.

Volkov, who now lives outside Russia, posted a message on telegram declaring “This shameful day will live long in memory.”

His fellow political exile Ivan Zhdanov, who also supports Navalny, stated that the US companies’ action amounted to “a shameful act of political censorship.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had warm praise for Google and Apple, saying that Moscow welcomed their removal of the voting app, adding that they had acted in the “spirit and letter of (Russian) law.”

Reuters reports that it verified that the app was indeed not available for Russian users from Apple’s AppStore or Google Play. Those who had downloaded versions of the voting app suddenly discovered that they were not working.

However, some virtual private networks, or VPNs, allowed users to get around the restrictions so that they were able to download the ap.

Navalny’s friends and allies have published detailed information elsewhere on the internet, however, giving much-needed background on the candidates running against the United Russia party.

The national election closes on Sunday evening. It is being viewed as a test of the strength of Putin’s political power while living standards are declining and Russia is increasingly isolated from he West.

Although experts state that United Russia is experiencing a dropoff in support, Putin’s party is still expected to win the election, after the most wide-ranging crackdown on its opponents for many years.

This plebiscite, which will be Russia’s first to employ electronic voting on a wide scale, has already experienced denial-of-service attacks, which a government ministry attributed to foreign IP addresses from the US, Germany and Ukraine.

Putin, who has been in power in some capacity since 1999, faces another presidential election in 2024. United Russia’s super majority in the State Duma, which has a total of 450 lawmakers, enabled Putin to ram through constitutional changes which allow him to run for office again — even possibly staying in power until 2036, when he would be 94 years of age.

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