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Navalny app removed as Russians vote after crackdown

Jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny’s app instructing Russians how to vote to unseat President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party disappeared from Apple and Google Friday as three-day parliamentary polls marked by a historic crackdown on the opposition opened across the country.

Parliamentary and local polls in the world’s largest country spread over 11 time zones began at 08:00 am Friday.

The run-up to the parliamentary polls has been marred by an unprecedented crackdown on Kremlin critics and independent media, with Putin’s top foe Alexei Navalny jailed in January and his organisations subsequently outlawed.

On Friday morning, Navalny’s “Smart Voting” app was unavailable on Google and Apple stores after Russia ramped on pressure on US tech giants to remove it, accusing them of election interference.

Navalny’s allies denounced the move as an “act of political censorship.”

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

Navalny had appealed to supporters from prison to download the app and urged them to back mostly Communist Party candidates to weaken the ruling party.

With many voters frustrated by falling incomes and not planning to cast their ballots, Putin urged Russians to elect a “strong” parliament.

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

The 68-year-old Russian leader is currently isolating after the Kremlin announced this week an outbreak of coronavirus cases among his inner circle. He said Thursday “dozens” had tested positive.

– Appeal from jail –

Navalny had called on Russians to cast aside apathy and vote pro-Kremlin candidates out of power.

“Are you not interested in trying?” he said in a message posted on Instagram, adding that even in prison he remained optimistic and urging Russians to do the same.

“I really do not think that I cannot change anything,” said the 45-year-old, who barely survived a poisoning with Novichok nerve agent he has blamed on the Kremlin.

The opposition politician’s allies have been barred from running, and his team has promoted Navalny’s tactical voting project, urging supporters to back candidates best positioned to beat Putin’s United Russia candidates.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has claimed that developers of Navalny’s app have ties to the Pentagon, and last week Moscow summoned US ambassador John Sullivan over interference of US tech giants in the polls.

Recent surveys by state-run pollster VTsIOM showed fewer than 30 percent of Russians planning to vote for the ruling party, down from 40-45 percent in the weeks ahead of the last parliamentary election 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 to 2036.

The vote is being held both online and in person, in a move officials said is aimed at limiting voters’ potential exposure to the coronavirus.

The opposition says that voting over several days gives officials greater opportunities to fix elections.

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said in August it would not be sending observers to Russia for the parliamentary election because of a limit on numbers imposed by Moscow.

– ‘Protests are unlikely’ –

Campaigning was lacklustre, and critics say the vote is little more than a rubber-stamping of Putin’s allies.

Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said that the Kremlin needed a pliant legislature ahead of 2024 when Putin’s current term ends.

Widespread claims of voter fraud during parliamentary elections in 2011 sparked major demonstrations, but political observers are not expecting protests this time.

“Once the Duma elections are over, protests are unlikely, since the opposition and civil society are demoralised,” Kolesnikov wrote. “The regime crackdown will intensify.”

Besides United Russia, 13 more parties are running in the elections.

A total of 225 of the State Duma’s 450 members are elected through party lists, while the rest are selected in single-member districts.