Google blocks more anti-Kremlin content as Russia vote draws to a close

MOSCOW – Russian opposition activists said Google had removed videos and documents they were using to stage a protest vote in this weekend’s election, the latest sign of growing Kremlin pressure on them. American Internet giants.

Google’s actions in response to government demands have included blocking access inside Russia to several YouTube and Google Docs links used by allies of jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny to coordinate the protest vote. in each of the country’s 225 constituencies, said activists, members of the Navalny Team. Google and Apple removed the activist group’s protest voting app on Friday after Russian officials threatened to sue employees of US companies inside the country.

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

“This content is not available in this country’s domain due to a legal government complaint,” a YouTube message read when users in Russia attempt to open blocked videos.

Russian elections are not free and fair, and videos appearing to show ballot box stuffing and other types of fraud during the three days of voting that began on Friday have circulated on social media. Despite falling approval ratings, United Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s ruling party, was certain to be declared the winner after the polls closed.

Nonetheless, Navalny’s allies hope to use a tactic they call “smart voting” to rebuke Putin by pooling their votes to elect as many United Russia candidates as possible, regardless of their political views.

“It’s an election without any choice, and although they can get the result they need, ‘smart voting’ is a good mechanism,” said Philipp Samsonov, 32, photographer in Moscow. “I hope that one day I can vote with my heart.”

Samsonov said he plans to vote for the candidate chosen by Navalny’s team in his district – in his case, a Communist – as the person with the best chance of defeating the ruling party candidate. Samsonov also said he plans to vote on Sunday night to reduce the chances of something happening to his ballot.

Navalny’s strategy has been complicated by the cat-and-mouse efforts of the Russian authorities to end the online activism of his allies in exile. After Google complied with Russian Internet regulator’s demands on Saturday to remove YouTube videos and Google Docs files listing smart voting choices, Navalny’s team quickly released new videos and documents accessible in Russia on Sunday. .

“It may seem strange that a Google Doc somewhere on the Internet could change so much,” Navalny’s allies said on the Telegram messaging app. “But nevertheless, it is like that.”

Google’s compliance with Russia’s requirements in recent days has been a remarkable concession for a company that prides itself on enabling the open exchange of information. In Russia, Google’s products, especially YouTube, have helped open avenues for free speech even as the Kremlin rolled back democratic freedoms.

Specific threats of legal action against some of the more than 100 Google employees in Russia have forced the company to withdraw the Navalny smartphone app, a person familiar with the Google decision told the New York Times on Friday. In recent months, Russian courts have banned Navalny’s movement as an extremist and declared his smart voting campaign illegal.

This weekend’s election comes amid a harsh crackdown on dissent by the Kremlin and murmurs of popular discontent. Apparently fearing a reprimand at the ballot box, authorities banned nearly all well-known opposition figures from standing in the parliamentary elections, while forcing many dissidents into exile and declaring that the popular independent media were outcasts. “Foreign agents”.

The multi-day nature of the election – officially put in place to reduce the spread of the coronavirus – has increased the likelihood of fraud by making the process more difficult to monitor, election observers and Kremlin critics said.

Gennadi A. Zyuganov, the leader of the Communist Party in Russia, said there had been a “huge amount” of election violations and warned of protests in the coming days – a statement notable as the Communists are generally loyal to Putin on the key. problems.

“I cannot rule out that all of this will lead to mass protests,” Zyuganov said on Twitter on Saturday. “I’m sure people won’t be in favor of a blatant substitution of their own.”

Last summer, widespread presidential fraud in neighboring Belarus sparked huge street protests – a scenario analysts say the Kremlin is determined to prevent from happening in Russia. Buses of riot police were stationed in central Moscow throughout the weekend, but it was too early to say if any protests would materialize.

The authorities seemed to be doing everything they could to bring the typical United Russia base to the polls: public sector workers, members of the military and security services and retirees. Groups of men in civilian clothes, all with similar hairstyles, lined up outside a polling station that covers Russia’s Defense Ministry on Friday in central Moscow.

Some admitted that they were members of the army and that they had been “strongly advised” by their commanders to vote on Friday. Others said they had free time to vote before the weekend, which they planned to spend out of town.

And many Russians continue to support Putin. Outside a Moscow polling station, a teacher, Tatyana Kolosova, 46, said she had voted against United Russia to inject “competition into the political sphere”. She said she hoped for a government reshuffle after the election, which would do more to reduce unemployment and support private businesses.

But she dismissed Navalny as “an enemy of our country” and vowed to vote for Putin if he ran for a fifth term as president in 2024, recalling the relative poverty and chaos of the 1990s, before he came to power.

“I am grateful that God has given us such a leader,” she said.

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