MOSCOW (AP) – An app created by allies of jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny disappeared from Apple and Google stores on Friday when polls opened in Russia for three days of voting in a parliamentary election.
It occurs as the Russian authorities seek to suppress the use of Smart Vote, a project designed by Navalny to promote candidates who are most likely to defeat those backed by the Kremlin.. This weekend’s election is seen as an important part of President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to consolidate his grip on power ahead of the 2014 presidential elections, for which control of parliament is key.
Apple and Google have been under pressure in recent weeks, with Russian officials urging them to remove the app, which features Smart Voting, saying that failure to do so will be construed as election interference and threatening them with fines.
Last week, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan on the situation.
On Thursday, representatives of Apple and Google were invited to a meeting in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, the Federation Council. The commission said in a statement after the meeting that Apple agreed to cooperate with Russian authorities.
Apple and Google have not responded to a request for comment.
In recent months, the authorities have unleashed a massive crackdown on Navalny allies and supporters in an effort to suppress smart voting.
After recovering from nerve agent poisoning last year, Navalny received a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence for violating probation for a prior conviction. He says both the poisoning and the conviction were politically motivated, charges the Kremlin denies.
His main allies were slapped with criminal charges, and his Foundation to Combat Corruption, as well as a network of regional offices, have been outlawed as extremist organizations. That has exposed hundreds of people associated with the groups to prosecution. Many of its main associates have left the country. Some 50 websites run by his team have been blocked and dozens of regional offices have been closed.
Authorities have also moved to block the Smart Voting website, but some internet users are still able to access it.
Navalny’s close ally Ivan Zhdanov tweeted a screenshot of what appears to be an email from Apple on Friday, explaining why the app should be removed from the store. The screenshot cites the extremism designation for the Foundation to Combat Corruption and allegations of electoral interference. “Google, Apple are making a big mistake,” wrote Zhdanov.
Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief strategist, wrote on Facebook that the companies “bowed to the Kremlin’s blackmail.”