As prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny launches a new independent news and communication app, the response from the Russian government has been harsh and immediate. The federal authority Roskomnadzor, the state communications watchdog, has confirmed that access to the website will be restricted and that users will be tracked and acknowledged by the government.
This presents a strong new chess move against the existing opposition to the leading party, United Russia. After the poisoning and incarceration of Alexei Navalny, and the outlawing of his Anticorruption Foundation, was this new move really necessary?
In September, in just one month, Russia will host the parliamentary elections, a true thermometer of the political status of any state. According to the ascendant popularity of Navalny and his party, and the loss of regional seats in the East of Russia, there is actually room to believe that Putin’s machine is starting to tremble (if not fall). His victory in September would most likely ensure Putin’s victory in the 2024 presidential elections, a result that would silence the few protests that arose in the Eastern part of the Federation (although those are mostly the independent voices of Navalny and his inner circle). Conversely, any growth of the independent faction in the parliamentary elections would create a new precedent, a new break in the solid political fence that Putin has created in over 20 years of rule in the country.
The new Federal interference in communications, given the low levels of freedom of press and thought seen in the country, has not only struck the Navalny foundation, but also allied networks and collaborators such as Leonid Volkov and Lyubov Sobol, who saw their websites taken down. Those websites, along with Navalny’s app, have been labeled as tools and materials of propaganda. The setback in progress aims at destroying any possible threat to Putin’s rule, which means annihilating any voice that is out of the government box.That is true propaganda and censorship, at levels seen before Gorbachev’s perestroika.
Navalny’s team, for the moment, seems still able to avoid the new restriction of Roskomnadzor. According to Navalny’s close ally, Ivan Zhdanov, the app cannot be blocked yet, despite the user tracking enabled by the government. In addition to news reports of recent and current investigations that have been hidden by state media, the app includes the Smart Voting system, a website created to support strong independent candidates that can challenge Putin’s rule and his watchdogs.
The Smart Voting website has not been struck down by Roskomnadzor yet. But the idea of creating an app to avoid possible restrictions clearly previews new digital interventions by the government that, not only in the case of the Smart Voting, will probably take action right before the elections. A sudden move by the Federation, such as a ban right before the vote, is not likely to be countered in time for Duma’s elections by the opposition, which would need time to reorganize to circumvent the new legislations.