Can Navalny’s Smart Voting App Affect Russia’s Elections?

Russian communists in Moscow on Friday laid flowers on the granite tombstones of dozens of senior officers of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police that killed, tortured and imprisoned millions during the Josef Stalin purges.

“We have to celebrate these people, honor them and remember them,” said four-time communist politician Nina Ostanina, referring to the officers, not the victims, including those who organized the purges and personally executed the “enemies of the people.”

Ostanina, who faced scrutiny after her son Daniil pleaded guilty in 2010 to stabbing his business partner 42 times, is standing for the Sept. 19 parliamentary vote.

She is among some of the candidates in the upcoming elections who will be backed by a political force that appears to be light years away from the current agenda of the Communist Party and past idols.

Jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny has a plan to use all means necessary to vote against candidates presented by United Russia, the pro-Kremlin ruling giant that has 334 seats in the 450-seat State Duma, the lower house of parliament. .

Navalny is serving a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence after recovering from a nerve agent poisoning last year, which he blamed on the Kremlin. The Russian state outlawed its Anti-Corruption Fund as an “extremist” group in June. The group’s leaders have fled Russia and most of its activists are unable to run.

But the fund developed Smart Voting, a ploy to eliminate them using a mobile phone app and online tools, which Navalny says would help supporters select some 1,300 individual candidates who oppose United Russia.

Each candidate is scrutinized after scrupulous scrutiny, supporters say.

Putin virtually criminalized any activity of the opposition, declaring it ‘extremist’. Tens of thousands of people are prohibited from participating in elections of any kind. All strong candidates are eliminated from the current Duma vote, ”Navalny said at the end of August, from jail, explaining why the Russians should use Smart Voting.

On Wednesday, Navalny’s aide Leonid Volkiv said in an online video that “millions of people in Russia hate United Russia.” That video appeared alongside a list of candidates who, according to him, had the best chances of beating the United Russia hopefuls, and most of them were from the Communist Party.

The smart voting system was designed in 2019 and has seen some success. In last year’s regional elections, Navalny claims, United Russia lost its majority in three Russian cities due to Smart Voting.

But the app was supposed to promote pro-Navalny candidates, and it feels highly ambivalent when it comes to backing would-be politicians with the “systemic opposition,” a handful of parties whose presence in the Duma creates an illusion of political plurality.

“It is a very double [political] tool, ”said campaign manager Vitali Shkliarov, who worked on the Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders campaigns in the United States, promoted pro-Navalny candidates in Russia, and was jailed and tortured in neighboring Belarus last year after working with a opposition presidential candidate.

“Smart Voting was conceived as a good tool, but in the political reality we live in, its implementation is not the best way out,” Shkliarov told Al Jazeera.

Many of the candidates backed by Smart Voting are communists, the largest political force opposed to the Kremlin, albeit mostly nominally.

The Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) has largely supported most of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initiatives, such as raising the retirement age, abolishing low public service payments for the elderly, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“They were completely sold out, I no longer vote for them. In fact, I am disgusted by what they have been doing in recent years with all these hymns to Stalin and submission to Putin. ”Alevtina Yevtushenkova, 43, a nurse in the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy, who was an avid supporter of communism in the 2000s, he told Al Jazeera.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov has praised Stalin, reversing the 1956 decision of his Soviet predecessors to condemn the purges and the cult of the leader’s personality.

The Communists hold the second largest bloc in the 450-seat State Duma with 43 seats. Zyuganov has come in a distant second in every presidential vote since 1996.

The only liberal democratic party allowed to participate in the parliamentary vote is Yabloko (Apple), a veteran group that expelled Navalny in 2008 for his nationalist views and participation in far-right rallies.

Navalny’s decision to elect the Communists and other “systemic” opposition candidates as the lesser of the two evils has polarized critics of the Kremlin.

“Even following the most rational reasons, I cannot vote for the CPRF which stands for sovok [a derogatory term for all things Soviet] and Stalin, ”arrested political activist Andrey Pivovarov said in a statement.

And even some who support smart voting consider it flawed.

“In Smart Voting there is a logical flaw: it urges to vote for any party other than United Russia. But I think many candidates from the [nationalist] LDPR and the communist parties are also United Russia, ”Maxim Shevchenko, a popular television personality and leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, told the Daily Storm newspaper.

Russian courts blocked Smart Voting’s website as “extremist” and ordered Google and Yandex, Russia’s largest search engine, not to display search results for “Smart Voting.”

On Monday, police officers reportedly visited the office of Google’s Russian subsidiary to “enforce” the order.

The spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Maria Zakharova, had said days before that the developers of the application “are somehow connected with the Pentagon.”

Western observers criticized the witch hunt and the Kremlin’s “manic” paranoia about the opposition.

“In Russia, the Kremlin is using all its strength to eliminate any possible opposition. I agree that Russia does not need to imitate the West, but this maniacal crackdown on the legitimate opposition is shameful, ”Ivar Dale, a senior policy adviser to the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog, told Al Jazeera. .

The Kremlin also appears to have found a more cunning way to ban smart voting.

In July, Woolintertrade, a wool merchant in the southwest Stavropol region, registered a “Smart Voting” trademark and a logo that resembles the app icon.

The “illegal” use of the fund, therefore, could be punishable by up to six years in prison, and all printed materials contained therein could be confiscated and destroyed.

Meanwhile, Navalny is being demonized on pro-Kremlin television networks, with only 14 percent of Russians approving of what he and his Anti-Corruption Fund do, while 62 “disapprove,” according to the July survey by the Levada Center pollster.

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