An election-guide app created by opposition activist Aleksei Navalny to erode the dominance of the ruling United Russia party disappeared from Apple and Google stores on the same day that Russians began voting in national parliamentary elections.
Allies of Navalny, who is currently in a notorious prison east of Moscow, said the Smart Voting app was no longer visible in the two tech giants' online stores on September 17, just as three days of voting for the State Duma got under way.
The app, which was still accessible and downloadable outside of Russia, previously had been available despite growing threats by Russian authorities, who had demanded Apple and Google take it down.
Neither Apple nor Google immediately responded to e-mails and phone calls from RFE/RL seeking comment.
News agency AFP, citing sources familiar with the matter, reported Google and Apple's decision was taken under pressure from Russian authorities, including threats of serious criminal charges and arrest of local staff.
One source said Apple employees faced "bullying tactics and threats of arrest," while another noted Google had acted under "extraordinary duress."
Ivan Zhdanov, one of several lawyers working with Navalny, posted a screenshot of a letter from Apple that appeared to confirm the deletion. The letter cited Russian authorities’ decision earlier this year to designate Navalny and his Anti-Corruption Organization as “extremist” -- an order that effectively bars them from political activity.
“The way the [Anti-Corruption Organization] was recognized as an extremist organization was not a trial, but a mockery of common sense,” Zhdanov said in post to Twitter. “Google and Apple are making a huge mistake.”
Zhdanov did not immediately respond to a message seeking further comment.
The Smart Voting app is designed to expand on and simplify the Smart Voting initiative that Navalny and his team pioneered in 2018.
The strategy identifies candidates who have the best chance to defeat a United Russia candidate -- even if that alternative candidate comes from one of the other main established political parties, something that many liberal Russians have typically opposed.
United Russia currently has a supermajority in the State Duma, with the Communist Party holding the most seats in the minority, followed by the Liberal Democratic Party, and A Just Russia.
Navalny’s allies continued to promote Smart Voting using other networks, including on the Telegram messaging app and Github, a popular site for software developers and coders. In a post to Telegram, Leonid Volkov, a top Navalny aide who fled Russia two years ago amid fears of arrest, blasted Apple and Google, suggesting they had succumbed to pressure from President Vladimir Putin.
“This shameful day will remain in history for a long time, because on this day, a crazy, frightened old man managed to force two great companies, which have something to be proud of, to publicly say that under certain circumstances they are ready to agree that 2 + 2 = 17,” he wrote.
Russian authorities had repeatedly threatened the two tech giants with fines if they didn’t block the app. Officials even tried to throttle secondary servers and Internet traffic routers to try and hamper access to the software.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Google and Apple were merely conforming to "the letter and spirit" of Russian law by removing the app.
"There were legal requirements. This [app] is illegal on the territory of our country. Both platforms received a notification and, in accordance with the letter and spirit of the law, they made such a decision, most likely," Peskov was quoted as saying by the TASS news agency.
On the eve of the election, regulators also temporarily blocked the Google Doc app as Navalny’s team released its slate of Smart Voting endorsements, the overwhelming majority of which were from the Communist Party.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the United States of interfering in the election campaign, asserting that the refusal by Apple and Google to block access to sites and apps related to Navalny was due to pressure from the U.S. government. The U.S. ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to be reprimanded.
The U.S. Embassy, which has not commented on the Foreign Ministry reports, did not immediately respond to a message from RFE/RL.
The Interfax news agency, meanwhile, reported on September 16 that a Russian lawmaker who is also an officer with the Federal Security Service had threatened local employees of Google and Apple with criminal prosecution.
"Structures and individuals who are associated with Apple and Google should be aware that their deliberately illegal actions and criminal inaction after receiving appropriate warnings from Russian officials will inevitably have legal consequences for them, including criminal ones," Vladimir Dzhabarov was quoted as saying.
Russian and foreign reporters in Moscow confirmed that that app either no longer accessible, or functional, as of September 17.
"This is, of course, a tremendous act of censorship," Navalny spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said. “It's a pity that at the moment of standoff between honest people and the corrupt regime, these companies played into the latter's hands.”
Russians began three days of voting on September 17, choosing not only a new Duma, but also legislatures in 39 regions, and nine regional governors.