Google pulls YouTube ad by Putin critic Alexei Navalny

By Marc Bennetts in Moscow

Google has removed adverts from YouTube by the prominent Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny that called for protests against Russian government plans to increase the national retirement age, after authorities complained that the videos broke the law.

Leonid Volkov, an aide to Navalny, said Google’s decision “presents a clear case of political censorship.” He said it was the first time Google had complied with a request by Russian authorities to block opposition content.

Navalny, who was jailed for 30 days last month on protest-related charges, called for nationwide demonstrations on Sunday against government plans to raise the state pension age for the first time since the 1930s. Around 80% of Russians say they are against the plans, and Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings have slumped to a four-year low.

Google confirmed it had pulled the videos. “We consider all justified appeals from state bodies. We also require advertisers to act in accordance with the local law and our advertising policies,” the company told Reuters.

Russian officials sent a letter to Google last month asking it to block Navalny’s videos because it said they were illegal under the country’s election laws, which bar political campaigning 24 hours before elections. Russians vote in regional elections on Sunday, and Moscow is holding mayoral elections that the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Sergei Sobyanin, is expected to win easily. Critics say the Kremlin has barred genuine opposition candidates from the ballot.

Volkov accused Russian authorities of misleading Google by alleging that Navalny’s videos were a form of “election meddling”.

He said: “The rallies do not have anything to do with the elections.” He pointed out that Google had removed the videos in Russian regions where there were no elections on Sunday. “Not every request signed by a government authority should be automatically considered as a lawful one,” he added.

Police detained more than a dozen members of Navalny’s opposition movement before the pension rallies, charging most of them with organising illegal protests. The arrests continued on Sunday as police cracked down on demonstrations in Siberia and eastern Russia ahead of later protests in central and western Russia, including Moscow.

Putin, who pledged in 2005 that he would never increase the national retirement age while president, has admitted that the pension changes are “painful” for Russians, but says the country risks economic collapse and hyperinflation if the government’s proposals are not approved.

In a televised address last month, he diluted the government’s plans, saying the national retirement age for women should be increased from 55 to 60, instead of 63 as previously proposed. The national retirement age for men would still rise from 60 to 65.

The government’s plans are widely unpopular because many Russians fear they will not live to see their pensions. Although life expectancies are rising in Russia, they are still relatively low, especially for men, for whom the average age of death is 66. Russian women can expect to live to 77, but many say widespread discrimination means they fear being left without a job or a pension.