Russian minister complains to US about role of ‘digital giants’ in election

The Russian foreign ministry has summoned the US ambassador, John Sullivan, to complain about alleged interference by American “digital giants” in Russia’s upcoming parliamentary election.

A ministry statement on Friday said deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov claimed Russia “possesses irrefutable evidence of the violation of Russian legislation by American digital giants in the context of the preparation and conduct of elections to the State Duma”.

It said deputy Ryabkov expressed the “categorical inadmissibility of interference in the domestic affairs of our country” during the meeting.

The statement did not give details of the complaint, but Russian authorities have pressured Google and Apple to remove apps belonging to the Smart Voting initiative designed by the team of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

The programme aims to advise voters which candidates are in the best position to defeat candidates from United Russia, the party that dominates parliament, in the 19 September election.

A state department spokeswoman, Jalina Porter, said the meeting covered a “range of bilateral matters” in support of President Joe Biden’s “desire for a stable and predictable relationship with Russia”.

The question of election interference, however, was not mentioned, prompting a riposte from the foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

“There is one reason – interference in Russian elections. We hope this is how American diplomats will report it to Washington,” Zakharova said on Telegram.

US-based internet companies, including Facebook, Twitter and Google, have recently faced a series of fines for failing to delete content requested by Russia’s media watchdog and for not storing the data of Russian users on domestic servers.

Following protests in support of jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny in January, authorities accused internet platforms of interfering in domestic affairs by not deleting posts calling for minors to join the rallies.

President Vladimir Putin that month complained about the growing influence of large technology companies, which he said were competing with states.

Nearly all vocal Kremlin critics, including Navalny’s allies, are barred from contesting this month’s parliamentary polls.

Navalny, 45, who is behind bars on old fraud charges, has this year seen his organisations banned, and his top aides have fled the country.

Russian media regulator Roskomnadzor urged Google and Apple to remove an app dedicated to Navalny’s Smart Voting campaign from their app stores, but they have yet to respond.

The Smart Voting tactic has led the increasingly unpopular United Russia party, currently polling at less than 30%, to lose a number of seats in recent local elections.

Many western leaders, including Biden, have demanded freedom for Navalny, who spent months in Germany recovering from a near-fatal poisoning attack that he blames on the Kremlin.

The US has also held Russia responsible for meddling in its elections and for large-scale cyberattacks, further straining bilateral ties.

In response, Moscow has accused the west of interference in its domestic affairs and of discriminating against its media.

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