The Irish Times view on Russia’s election: leaving nothing to chance

US tech giants have decided that free speech is worth less than market access in Russia

For several hours after polls closed in Russia's parliamentary elections, a surprise seemed possible. Not overall defeat for Kremlin-aligned United Russia, of course, but a triumph of tactical voting in Moscow that would deliver many of its seats in the national parliament to critics of President Vladimir Putin.

That prospect was crushed the next morning when, after an unexplained delay, a cascade of electronic votes from Russia’s utterly opaque online voting system crushed the healthy leads of several opposition candidates and handed all of Moscow to the ruling party. Independent data analysts say that between one-third and half of the votes claimed by United Russia were probably fake, and that its popularity probably sits much closer to recent poll figures of about 30 per cent than its official election tally of nearly 50 per cent.

What the election showed is that Putin and his circle will not leave anything to chance as Russia's ruler of 21 years decides whether to plough on or effect a succession. In a little over a year, opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been poisoned and jailed, his anti-corruption network banned as "extremist", his allies barred from elections, and many independent media and NGOs blacklisted. When Navalny's tactical voting strategy, distributed via his "Smart Voting" app, was poised to pummel United Russia candidates across Moscow, loyal election officials wielding unverifiable electronic votes came to their rescue.

Putin's critics are angry but not surprised that a Kremlin campaign to stifle dissent culminated in a blatant and clumsy act of fraud. What shook them more was how Google and Apple bowed to Russian pressure to block the Smart Voting app on the eve of the election, and how a list of Navalny-backed candidates was removed by Google-owned YouTube – where millions of Russians have watched the campaigner's exposés of top-level graft. The US tech giants decided that free speech was worth less than market access in Russia, leaving Putin's opponents to fight on with even fewer weapons than before, and with a little less faith in the West.