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Police arrest a single picketer in downtown Moscow on August 14, 2021. His sign reads simply, “Smart Vote.”
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Under pressure How the Russian authorities have expanded their fight against Alexey Navalny’s ‘Smart Vote’ initiative ahead of September’s parliamentary elections

Source: Meduza
Police arrest a single picketer in downtown Moscow on August 14, 2021. His sign reads simply, “Smart Vote.”
Police arrest a single picketer in downtown Moscow on August 14, 2021. His sign reads simply, “Smart Vote.”
Alexander Kazakov / Kommersant

In recent months, the remnants of imprisoned opposition politician Alexey Navalny’s team have endured police pressure that has no precedent in Russia’s post-Soviet history. The authorities have devoted special attention to “Smart Vote,” the Navalny movement’s strategic initiative (first introduced in 2019 and 2020 for local elections in Moscow, Tomsk, and Novosibirsk) that directs opposition voters to the candidates Team Navalny deems likeliest to defeat nominees from United Russia, the country’s ruling political party. In its war against Smart Vote, Russia’s federal censor, RKN, has even started threatening some of the world’s biggest Internet companies. Here is a chronology of the last three months in this confrontation between the Russian state and Alexey Navalny’s last-standing national campaign.

June 1, 2021

A “constantly updated database of Smart Vote’s Moscow subscribers” appears for sale on one of Russia’s online black markets. The seller claims that the database includes subscribers’ IP addresses, email addresses, and residence records. This database is allegedly different from the information about Navalny’s supporters that leaked online in April 2021. (Team Navalny attributes the earlier leak to former colleague Fyodor Gorozhanko, who denies this accusation.)

June 9

The Moscow City Court designates Alexey Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation and his entire nationwide network of campaign offices (though the latter were never formally registered as organizations) as “extremist organizations,” outlawing these groups. The ruling technically doesn’t enter force for another two months, on August 4, but police begin enforcing the decision immediately.

June 21

RKN asks Google, which owns Smart Vote’s domain (appspot.com), to cease all technical support to Smart Vote’s website, arguing that it “illegally processes Russian citizens’ personal data.” The federal censor says it is responding to a report filed by a lawyer in Yekaterinburg named Andrey Elantsev, who complained that Smart Vote’s servers are located in the United States.

Leonid Volkov, Navalny’s chief of staff, says RKN is “blackmailing” Google because the agency has failed to block Smart Vote since it was first launched. 

June 29

A wool processing company based in Russia’s Stavropol region files a patent request for a “Smart Vote” trademark that matches the logo for Team Navalny’s project exactly. The company wants its trademark registered everywhere possible within the International Classification of Goods and Services.

July 26

RKN starts blocking Russian Internet users’ access to Alexey Navalny’s website, the websites for 39 of Navalny’s regional offices, and the websites of Navalny’s top associates (for example, Leonid Volkov and Lyubov Sobol). The agency says it is targeting online resources “used to propagate and continue prohibited extremist activities.” But Team Navalny’s main remaining project, Smart Vote, remains accessible.

Background

Moscow’s East-German scenario Oppositionist Leonid Volkov explains how a daring new voting strategy is supposed to destroy Russia’s political monopoly

Background

Moscow’s East-German scenario Oppositionist Leonid Volkov explains how a daring new voting strategy is supposed to destroy Russia’s political monopoly

July 27

In record time, “Woolintertrade” wins a patent for the Smart Vote trademark. This process usually takes about a year. (Russia’s Patent Office itself says the waiting period is between six months and one year.)

August 16

Telegram channels begin sharing an expanded, “enriched” version of the database that leaked in June. The records now include Smart Vote subscribers’ surnames, home addresses, and information about their employers. The new database lists employees at the insurance company Rosgosstrakh, Aeroflot, Gazprombank, Pochta Bank, and other large organizations, including some federal agencies.

August 17

Police officers start knocking on the doors of the Navalny supporters identified in the leaked databases, asking them to file reports against Navalny and his team for illegally handling their personal information. The individuals targeted in this campaign had registered with Smart Vote, endorsed a campaign to free Navalny from prison, or donated directly to the Anti-Corruption Foundation.

Sources told BBC Russia that the campaign to collect police reports from Navalny’s supporters is based on the Putin administration’s instructions to “intimidate” the activists and prevent another wave of protests ahead of September’s parliamentary elections.

At first, it’s just police officers in Moscow who come to Navalny supporters’ homes, but officials in other cities soon join in. By September 1, according to the website OVD-Info, officers in 11 different regions across the country have visited roughly 1,500 people. 

August 19

RKN orders Apple and Google to remove the Navalny mobile app from the App Store and Google Play, where Team Navalny continues to publish messages and articles from their main website. The app also has a Smart Vote function, linking users to that project. Russia’s censor says its orders are based on demands from the Attorney General’s Office “to restrict access to information resources connected to the organization of the Anti-Corruption Foundation’s work.” In a letter to Apple, RKN says the Navalny app “propagates the actions and facilitates the activities of extremist organizations.” 

August 20

RKN begins blocking the Navalny mobile app inside Russia. Initially, Team Navalny claims to have evaded the censor’s efforts “using various methods,” but the government gradually gains ground in this race. By August 23, many users report that the app has stopped updating for them.

September 2

RKN threatens Apple and Google with administrative charges and multi-million-ruble penalties for refusing to remove the Navalny app from their stores. Additionally, the agency says the two companies’ intransigence could constitute at least two felonies: interference in Russia’s September parliamentary elections and participation in the actions of extremist organizations.

Later that day, a court in Rostov-on-Don sentences an activist named Bella Nasibyan to five days in jail for propagating “extremist symbols.” Nasibyan posted a photograph of a banner that read “Smart Vote” on her Instagram page. The judge locks her up, despite the fact that she has a three-year-old child at home, which makes the separation illegal. The next day, Nasibyan is released and her punishment is reduced to a 2,000-ruble ($27) fine.

September 3

As an injunctive measure in a copyright lawsuit brought by the wool manufacturing company that acquired the Russian patent to Navalny’s “Smart Vote” brand, Moscow’s Arbitration Court prohibits Google and Yandex from displaying the phrase umnoe golosovanie (“smart vote”) in search results. Yandex vows to challenge the ruling, explaining that “it’s completely unclear what exactly we’re required to do and how it could be implemented.” 

September 5

Strategists working on a campaign in the Krasnodar region for a candidate from the “New People” party launch a similar project called “Reasonable Vote.” The copycat initiative is presented to voters as a replacement for Navalny’s campaign, which “failed to take root” locally, the strategists claim. The party’s founder, Alexey Nechaev, denies any involvement in the spoiler project, attributing it entirely to the local campaign team. Strategists working for United Russia, the country’s ruling political party, also flirted with cloning Navalny’s strategic voting initiative, sources told Meduza.

September 6

Using new hardware that is capable of deep-packet-inspection data processing (recently introduced ostensibly to sustain Russia’s Internet connectivity in the event that a hostile foreign power tries to take the country offline), a special subdivision of RKN begins blocking Smart Vote’s website, votesmart.appspot.com. The agency says it blocked the website “because it is used to continue the activities and conduct of an extremism organization.”

Yandex removes Smart Vote’s website and mirror websites from its search results after RKN adds these hyperlinks to Russia’s registry of banned online resources.

September 8

Ivan Zhdanov, the former head of the Anti-Corruption Foundation, tells the television network Dozhd that Team Navalny will cease collecting personal data from Smart Vote’s participants. He directs supporters to the Navalny app and the project’s Telegram bots, where there’s no need to register with an email address.

Later that day, RKN sends official warnings to Apple, Google, Cloudflare, and Cisco, demanding that the companies stop providing services to Smart Vote’s mobile app and website that allow users to bypass Russian state censorship. “The companies Apple and Google, Google’s DNS- and CDN- services, Cisco, Cloudflare, and several other companies […] are ignoring lawful orders,” the agency says, explaining that non-compliance will be construed as “foreign interference” in Russia’s State Duma elections and potentially as “aiding and abetting the activities of an extremist organization.”

On Twitter, Zhdanov says that RKN has started trying to block public DNS servers run by Google and Cloudflare on Russia’s major telecom operators.

September 10

Advertisements start appearing on YouTube showing footage of Alexey Navalny and his associates urging the public not to vote in Russia’s upcoming elections. The ads do not disclose to viewers that the videos are from more than three years ago when Team Navalny advocated a boycott of the presidential election after officials refused to register Navalny’s candidacy.

We won’t give up Because you’re with us

Text by Alexander Baklanov

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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