Google and Apple have removed jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny's tactical voting app from their stores, as Russia began its three-day parliamentary elections on Friday.
The Smart Voting app provides information to anti-Kremlin voters, allowing them to vote tactically for candidates with the best shot at unseating pro-Kremlin lawmakers.
The app and its related website were designed to help voters break the Kremlin's monopoly on electoral politics, and while the authorities blocked the website days ago, the app was still available until Friday.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov welcomed the decisions made by Google and Apple, say they had adhered to "legal requirements," according to the Interfax news agency.
Navalny confidante Ivan Zhdanov blasted Google and Apple for removing the app, saying in a Twitter post that the US tech giants had engaged in a "shameful act of political censorship."
The Smart Voting campaign has now moved to places such as Telegram and YouTube.
Russians began voting on Friday to fill all 450 seats in the State Duma, Russia's lower legislative house. However, a win by United Russia, the party that has supported President Vladimir Putin for two decades, is considered all but a foregone conclusion.
The voting is being held over three days, a decision authorities say was taken in order to limit the spread of the coronavirus, but which the opposition argues increases opportunities for fraud.
The Kremlin has cleared the field of many of its rivals, with opposition members in prison, detained, or barred from running.
Media outlets shut down
Meanwhile, one independent media outlet after another has been shut down in recent months after being targeted by the authorities for being "foreign agents," a term for any media outlet that accepts funding from abroad since regulations were changed in 2017.
Election observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) will also be absent for the election, after the OSCE announced it could not accept the strict limit on numbers imposed by Moscow earlier this year.
From his penal camp east of Moscow, Navalny has been able to get messages out to his supporters in which he urges them to coalesce to oust Putin's "corrupt" regime.
United Russia, which is strongly allied to, and in many cases identical with, Russia's oligarch class, currently has a massive majority in the State Duma, holding 336 of the 450 seats.
The body is far less powerful than the presidency but still plays important advisory and legislative roles.
United Russia's popularity has plummeted in recent years amid widespread discontent over economic and social hardships. But since it is expected to maintain its majority, the real question is how many seats the opposition can peel away.
There are a small handful of other parties already represented in the Duma, although their ideologies and positions frequently overlap with United Russia's, forming part of what has been termed Russia's 'managed democracy.'
The Communist Party of the Russian Federation is hoping to expand its presence under 77-year-old veteran party leader Gennady Zyuganov. There is also 75-year-old right-wing populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky with his nationalist LDPR party and Sergei Mironov, 68, of the A Just Russia — For Truth party.
In a pre-election handout to incentivize turnout, Putin promised last month that pensioners and military personnel would receive one-off payments this year.
Political scientist Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre said the pervasive opinion among Russians was that the whole election is utterly pointless.
But Putin needs the election - even if it is neither free nor fair - because having a majority in parliament confers a form of legitimacy on his 21 years in power.
"In Russia, with its advanced authoritarianism, this is not a choice like from a menu for a particular dish, but a Yes vote," Kolesnikov said, adding that anti-democratic tactics were a given.
"The most important tool, as always, is the mobilization of people who are dependent on the state," he said, mentioning employees of state-owned enterprises and public workers.
Kolesnikov said the "tightening" of the Kremlin's grip will continue and that he did not expect any large protests against the election results, saying many people were simply too demoralized.
Even the Smart Voting tactic has proven divisive among Navalny's supporters. The scheme urges the electorate to vote for any candidate so long as they are not a member of United Russia, yet many candidates who are not of the ruling party have stances aligned with the Kremlin.