Here’s the main reason why Aleksei Navalny has become such a potent political force and a threat to the Kremlin: his splashy exposés documenting corruption and ostentatious spending by government officials, usually accompanied by his acerbic wit.
But there’s another, equally potent reason: his Smart Voting campaign, an effort that aims to loosen the chokehold the Kremlin-allied United Russia political party has on elected legislatures nationwide.
And that’s why, with just weeks to go before nationwide elections to choose a new lower house of parliament, authorities have stepped up a crackdown on anything connected to Smart Voting.
"They are definitely fighting against Smart Voting," Abbas Gallyamov, a Moscow-based political analyst, told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.
"We can't forget that Smart Voting is the most dangerous of all of Navalny's projects, at least at the present moment,” he said.
Smart Voting Goes High-Tech
The September 17-19 elections are crucial not only for cementing United Russia’s grip on the country’s political life. They’re also key to any constitutional maneuvering that the Kremlin might undertake in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election, when President Vladimir Putin may seek a fifth term.
The problem for the Kremlin is that, at least since last year, polling for United Russia has been at historic lows.
The opposition, headed by Navalny, has shown unprecedented effectiveness -- using the Smart Voting tactic to secure victories for hundreds of opposition candidates in local elections across the country in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
In past years, the effort was more of a traditional word-of-mouth and public-relations campaign promoted by Navalny and his allies through their networks.
We all want to see the Beautiful Russia of the Future as soon as possible, but we have to be realistic.... Smart Voting helps make the first step toward restoring true competition to our political life.”-- Smart Voting website
This year, with the national Duma elections looming, Smart Voting has gone high-tech, with a downloadable app launched on August 24 that identifies in most races the candidate most likely to defeat their ruling party rival, regardless of party affiliation or ideology, and urges voters to cast their votes for that candidate.
Far from being simple “vote-for-this-other-candidate-because-we-said-so” guidance, Navalny strategists have made Smart Voting into a sophisticated algorithm, taking into account things like a particular’s region’s voting history, the other campaigns, interviews with local political analysts and experts, and other factors.
Moreover, alternative candidates identified by Smart Voting aren’t necessarily considered “liberal” or even opposition candidates. Sometimes they are affiliated with one of the alternative political parties -- the Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, or A Just Russia -- whose presence in the Duma is effectively endorsed by the Kremlin but aren’t really considered truly independent of Kremlin pressure.
"We all want to see the Beautiful Russia of the Future as soon as possible, but we have to be realistic," it says on the Smart Voting website. "It is not going to happen overnight…. Smart Voting helps make the first step toward restoring true competition to our political life.”
On its website, Smart Voting claims that, in 2019, it reduced the number of United Russia lawmakers in the Moscow city legislature from 38 to 25.
Among other things, the system all but ended decades of opposition infighting about whether to participate in elections -- seen by many as Kremlin-manipulated -- and also enabled those opposed to United Russia's stranglehold to vote as a relatively powerful bloc.
"The main conclusion of the recent campaign is simple: Voters need to register on the Smart Voting website and cast their votes in accordance with its recommendations,” Ilya Yashin, an activist who is among the many prominent opposition figures whom the government barred from seeking a Duma seat, wrote on Facebook after local elections last September.
“If we do everything in a smart way, then next year United Russia will lose its majority in the federal parliament,” Yashin wrote.
Smart Voting threatens to be a particularly powerful weapon in the competition for the half of Duma seats that are awarded in single-mandate districts.
In the 2016 Duma elections, United Russia was awarded more than 90 percent of such seats because of the first-past-the-post voting system. That’s despite polling just over 40 percent of the vote, according to disputed official figures.
Political consultants within the Putin administration seem to have reached the same conclusion as Yashin.
"We are seeing the authorities trying to break the [Smart Voting] infrastructure or make it as difficult as possible to access it," said Stanislav Andreichuk, co-chairman of Golos, an election-monitoring NGO that was declared a "foreign agent" by the Justice Ministry in August.
Through Navalny has been jailed in a notorious prison east of Moscow since February, his team in August released that downloadable app to help people figure out how to Smart Vote.
The app is called, simply, Navalny.
The government’s Internet regulator, Roskomnadzor, has ordered Apple and Google to delete the Navalny app from their stores. So far, the two U.S.-based tech giants have refused, and face potentially huge fines.
Navalny's supporters have said Roskomnadzor has also been trying to block Russian users from downloading the app.
Globalcheck, an NGO that monitors the accessibility of Internet resources in the former Soviet Union, says that accessibility -- the real-time availability of the app from various Internet providers -- plummeted to 50 percent after the app was launched, and since then has ranged largely between 50 and 70 percent.
Some users have reportedly claimed that they were unable to use the app even when using a virtual private network, or VPN.
"There has been an order to do everything to prevent voters from finding out about the Smart Voting recommendations, to prevent them from consolidating their votes," Navalny project manager Leonid Volkov said in a post to Facebook on August 25.
This spring, Navalny’s organization, known as the Anti-Corruption Foundation, revealed that its computer servers had been hacked and that data on hundreds of thousands of people supportive of the foundation had been stolen.
According to an investigation carried out by Current Time in May, digital footprints showed that the hack, which resulted in the leak of data about some 529,000 of Navalny's supporters, seemed to have been carried out by people connected to the presidential administration.
Over the summer, police stepped up raids and the questioning of people across Russia; many of those targeted were asked specifically about Navalny.
By the end of August, according to OVD-Info, a rights group that monitors law enforcement agencies, police had visited more than 1,400 people in at least 11 regions who had shown support for Navalny.
At first, we thought it was some sort of joke. All of the reports came in as if they had been copied and pasted. They weren't merely similar, but identical.”-- Yelena Makarova, OVD-Info lawyer
According to Yelena Makarova, a lawyer with the group, those targeted were asked to explain why they had donated to Navalny's Anti-Corruption Foundation, which has been banned as an "extremist" organization.
They were also asked why they had downloaded Navalny's Smart Voting application or why they had signed a petition pledging to protest Navalny's imprisonment.
"At first, we thought it was some sort of joke," she said. "All of the reports came in as if they had been copied and pasted. They weren't merely similar, but identical.”
Russians targeted by police were "strongly encouraged" to file a legal complaint against Navalny and his staff for purportedly failing to protect databases with their personal information, OVD-Info said.
At least one person was told directly that if he refused to write a complaint against Navalny, he would be taken to a police detention center and held there until he changed his mind, Makarova said.
The BBC, citing an unnamed source "close to the Federal Security Service (FSB)," reported on September 1 that the order for the police visits had come from Putin's presidential administration and was being carried out by Interior Ministry units controlled by the FSB.
Real Smart Vote, Fake Smart Vote
In addition to efforts to block the Smart Voting website and the app, and police intimidation, Volkov said "innumerable fake Smart Voting sites" and apps have flooded the Internet.
“A huge, expensive advertising campaign by fakes has been launched on social media so that people would be confused by the various recommendations and unable to distinguish the real from the fake,” Volkov said.
In addition, multiple media outlets allied with, or backed by, the government have been attacking the campaign.
"Smart voting is a manipulative and destructive tactic, the main goal of which is to destroy the Russian system of governance," one article published by the Siberia-based Federal Press website on August 30, said. "The project is not based on creation, but on destruction, which is the very essence of extremism."
A month before the Navalny Smart Voting app was launched, an unknown wool-trading firm with three employees based in the southern Stavropol region registered "Smart Voting" as its trademark.
On September 1, the company filed a lawsuit against Google, insisting that the search-engine giant block all "illegal" uses of the phrase.
Gallyamov, the Moscow analyst, said that the flurry of activity targeting Smart Voting indicates the level of Kremlin concern.
“The only thing that can be done in such a situation to save its election prospects is to refocus the voting of its opponents,” he said.
In each election district across the country, there are probably two or three candidates whom opposition voters might support, he said.
"If each of them picks up a reasonable percentage, then none of them will get more than the United Russia candidate, who will be backed up by administrative resources,” Gallyamov said.
“This kind of refocusing is the main hope of the authorities” he said. “That is why Smart Voting is their main enemy."