The Kremlin takes control of the internet in Russia’s Duma elections

The Kremlin takes control of the internet in Russia’s Duma elections
Opposition forces in most of the protest movements in Eastern Europe rely almost completely on the internet to co-ordinate protests but as Russians vote in this year's key Duma elections it appears that the Kremlin has effectively suppressed Team Navalny's online resources. / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin September 18, 2021

Russia Duma elections are under way but the election is not about re-electing the ruling United Russia Party but more about making sure that jailed anti-corruption activist and opposition politician Alexei Navalny’s smart voting project is a total failure. The key to achieving that goal has been the Kremlin’s largely successful efforts to cut the opposition off from its main weapon: the internet.

The result of the election is a foregone conclusion. As of late afternoon on the second day of voting on September 18, 90% of the online votes offered in seven regions had been cast and a reported 17% of the physical votes, and preliminary official exit polls give United Russia 48% of the vote, enough to win a clear majority of seats.

Online voting is almost totally opaque and can be used to adjust the results to any outcome the Kremlin wants. It is a more elegant resource than was used in the 2011 vote – the dirtiest election to date that resulted in hundreds of thousands gathering to protest in Bolotnaya Square in Moscow. As bne IntelliNews reported, in that election the Kremlin massively falsified the results in eight key regions, mostly in the Caucasus, to give United Russia up to 100% of the vote so the cumulative nationwide tally was a clear majority for United Russia. The use of online voting means such crude methods as ballot stuffing can be avoided and the final result more elegantly massaged and spread across more regions, making such interference less obvious.

Given it is almost certain that United Russia will be swept to victory, the Kremlin’s goal appears to be to make sure smart voting doesn't overturn a single district and the candidates of the powers that be win every race where there is a smart voting contestant, in an effort to delegitimise the tactic.

“If the Kremlin does have a central focus in this election, it's making sure the @navalny/@leonidvolkov #SmartVoting project fails. And for the most part, the Kremlin is getting its way,” Sam Greene, a professor of politics at King's College London and the director of King's College Russia Institute, said in a tweet. “But everything we've seen thus far points to an equally important priority for Team Putin: Making sure Team Navalny fails. Losing even a single "safe" seat to a #SmartVoting candidates would feel unthinkable. The Kremlin needs SmartVoting to be an abject failure.”

Blocking the Navalny App

The Kremlin has pulled out all the stops to crush the smart voting initiative and the state information and media regulator Roskomnadzor has made frantic efforts to close Navalny’s operation down.

The campaign started with declaring Navalny’s organisation extremist in June, so anyone co-operating with the project would face criminal charges and a long jail sentence.

The next step was to block Navalny's smart voting site on September 6 and then remove the Navalny app from both Google and Apple app stores.

At the same time, VPN networks that allow users to sidestep Kremlin blocks on sites were also largely disabled, starting in June. The result is that while much of the content was still accessible in Russia it has become increasingly difficult to reach. The technology that enabled Roskomnadzor to block VPNs was first rolled out in the spring, when it was added to operators' servers as part of the new “sovereign RuNet” legislation that forces companies to bring their user information onshore.

The regulator conducted the first high-profile tests of this technology in the spring, when it decided to successfully slow Twitter down, but did not block it completely.

The final step has been to try to kill the list of smart candidates to vote for, which Team Navalny released on social media 48 hours ahead of the vote – a point where the Kremlin can no longer remove any of the names from the election roll – which was hosted on Google Docs.

Both Google and Apple rolled over and complied with the order and removed the Navalny app. Reportedly, rather than threatening the company with legal action, Google’s local staff in Russia were instead threatened with arrest to get their company to comply.

Late into the game on the second day of voting tech wunderkind Pavel Durov also agreed to disable bots on the Telegram message service that provide information to subscribers about who to vote for in the elections.

Justifying the decision, Durov explained in a post on his Telegram channel that the network will observe Russia’s “election silence” during the voting process. “We consider this practice to be legitimate and call on Telegram users to respect it. Beginning at midnight, Moscow time [September 18], we plan to restrict the functionality of bots associated with election campaigning.”

The opposition leaders must be very disappointed, as Telegram has been the backbone of protests against many authoritarian regimes like Belarus and Iran, and in those countries it defied government orders to turn off the service, which is widely used by protest organisers.

Unlike these other protests, the Kremlin has been highly successful at muzzling the online resources that have so successfully been used against regimes elsewhere.

Part of this is due to the Kremlin specifically targeting the Navalny app and its lists. There was speculation that the Kremlin would simply attempt to turn the internet off, as happened in the Minsk mass demonstrations last summer, or close sites like Twitter and Facebook.

“We don't seem – yet – to be seeing what many observers most feared: a massive, Belarus-style internet blackout. Of course, a lot of the censorship was done well before the elections kicked off. But there could have been more,” says Greene. “There had also been at least some expectation that access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube would be severely limited or blocked altogether. Thus far (and there's two days to go), none of that has happened. The Kremlin seems satisfied that its combination of centralised anti-Navalny disruption and decentralised "proactive compliance" by local election managers will do the trick.” 


Apple and Google under pressure

Late in the evening of September 8 Roskomnadzor began testing blocking of public DNS services Google and Cloudflare, which protect web portals, The Bell reports.

“The tests lasted only an hour, and we learned about them only thanks to the vigilance of IT experts. After that, it was reported that Roskomnadzor recommended state-owned companies to switch to Russian DNS servers or NSDI (National Domain Name System) rather than use foreign ones,” The Bell said in a report. “Why all this is needed is anyone's guess, but most likely the matter is in the services for encrypting DNS queries, including the DoH service mentioned in the regulator's reports. With its help, you can hide from the provider the address of the site to which the user is trying to enter. This is exactly what Roskomnadzor is now trying to fight: encryption prevents operators from seeing the user's request and, if necessary, blocking it. The problem is that blocking public DNS will inevitably lead to the disabling of an unpredictable set of different services and, importantly, IoT devices, so Roskomnadzor will probably use this tool only in emergency cases.”

Roskomnadzor also took out the VPN services in June, including the popular VyprVPN and Opera VPN, which were banned. The last six, which included ExpressVPN, NordVPN and IPVanish VPN, all ranked among the world's best VPNs, were banned in Russia in early September, reports the Bell.

While taking down websites and preventing Russian users by-passing the bans by going overseas via a VPN proved relatively easy to organise; taking out the Navalny app was a lot more difficult.

On August 19 Roskomnadzor demanded that Apple and Google remove the application from their stores due to the fact that it is associated with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK) that was declared an extremist organisation, on a par with a terrorist group.

The representatives of both companies were summoned to the Federation Council and after resisting both finally caved in as voting got underway on September 17. The Navalny application with built-in Smart Voting was in both the tech companies’ stores, but was removed as the polls opened. Those that had already downloaded it can keep it and it still works, but it is no longer available to anyone else.

The last challenge was to get the smart voting lists hosted on Google Docs deleted. The Kremlin has been using its commercial leverage over the international internet giants to bully them into compliance. Internet penetration has exploded as Russians have embraced the new economy technology and as bne IntelliNews has reported, e-commerce is booming, given a boost last by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Russia is now the largest online market and long since has had more people online than Germany, the most populous country in Europe after Russia. Even though Google is trailing behind Russia’s own Yandex, the most valuable tech company on the Continent, Russia is already too big a market to ignore. For Apple, Russia is already the biggest market in Europe too.

On the eve of the elections, reports started coming in that Google Docs was no longer accessible to some Russian users as Roskomnadzor began testing its ability to shut the service down just after Team Navalny released the smart voting lists. Roskomnadzor quickly denied blocking the service, saying questions about the failure of the service should go to Google. It is not clear what happened but industry sources talking to The Bell report that Roskomnadzor was testing its ability to block the service. But rather than carry out a damaging and indiscriminate shutdown of the widely used service, Roskomnadzor managed to persuade Google to cut access to the lists on the grounds they are associated with an “extremist” organisation and that refusing carries severe criminal penalties for non-compliance.

Will smart voting fail?

With another day of voting ahead it appears that the Kremlin has the upper hand. Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko was made to look a fool for attacking social media services that were used so effectively against him. As bne IntelliNews reported in the feature “Nexta: Belarus’ revolution by committee”, the informal leaders of the opposition could control crowds in real time using the Nexta Telegram channel and the authorities were powerless to prevent it. In Russia the Kremlin seems to have been largely successful in locking down Team Navalny’s best effort to disseminate the crucial smart voting lists to the Russian electorate. The lists have been published and read by millions of people but by the first day of voting it was already difficult to find the lists online.

“The underlying data for the system has now made its way to various servers – including Wikipedia – but centralised, easy to find and read distribution of Smart Voting guidance has effectively been disrupted,” Greene tweeted. 

Team Navalny has presented alternative candidates for the State Duma elections in all 225 single-mandate constituencies, conceding that the Kremlin has control over the remaining 225 party list constituencies that will mostly be won by United Russia. Usually United Russia does not field a candidate in some of these constituencies to allow the parties from the systemic opposition to win enough seats to clear the 5% threshold and get into the Duma, although as a sign of the Kremlin’s nervousness it has conceded fewer of these seats this year than in the last elections.

Nearly two thirds of the smart voting recommendations are from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), which ironically has been the big winner from the Team Navalny campaign, despite the fact that the KPRF itself rejects Navalny and his initiative.

However, while smart voting has become a major headache for the Kremlin, it is estimated to change the course of voting by about 5% in each race and that is not enough to deliver more than a minority of upsets. In 2020, the tactic was most successful in the regional elections, where 19 candidates out of 27 supported by smart voting entered the Tomsk City Duma, and 14 out of 50 in Novosibirsk. However, the main effect of the tactic is to de-legitimise the Kremlin further and force it to cheat more blatantly, which will undermine the Kremlin’s authority further. If the Kremlin pushes its efforts to fix the election too far and ignores the protest vote completely, it runs the risk of sparking mass demonstrations again, like those that followed the 2011 elections.