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The reconfiguring of Russia's digital landscape in the wake of Putin's decision to invade Ukraine continues to play out at a macro and micro level. Here's a development on the latter front: Local tech giant Yandex has quietly removed national borders from its maps product.
Users of Yandex's maps app, which is popular in countries in the CIS region, can still see country names displayed -- but lines depicting exact borders between countries like Ukraine and Russia are no longer visible.
We understand the move is an attempt to sidestep political pressure from the Kremlin related to the war in Ukraine -- where Putin's regime is attempting to redraw physical borders through bloody, military aggression.
A Yandex spokesperson did not explicitly state this as the reason for taking the drastic step of erasing national borders from its maps product when asked for comment but in a statement the company confirmed it has removed national frontiers -- spinning the change as part of a shift of emphasis towards local navigation. Which, er, is quite the headspin.
"Yandex Maps is a universal service that helps people find organizations and places nearby, choose public transport and plan comfortable routes. These are the main use cases for our users," the spokesperson told us. "In the near future, the map will become more physical-geographical on scales where it’s not used for its main purpose -- i.e., overview scales of the map. The emphasis there will switch from country borders to natural objects.
"Our goal is to display the world around. Therefore, some objects -- like mountains, rivers, lines of the polar circles and other data which is specific to this type of map -- will appear on it."
Yandex's maps app appears to handle other potential political disputes -- such as different names for places or different English transliterations of Ukrainian place names (i.e., based on either the Ukrainian or Russian pronunciation) -- either by customizing the view, based on the location of the user; or displaying contradicting options on the map, separated by a "/" symbol. Also, presumably, in a bid to try to avoid political controversy and be able to claim neutrality.
In recent months the Russian tech giant announced a more major reconfiguration of its business aimed at shrinking its political risk, such as announcing the sale of its news aggregator and blogging platform products, News and Zen, to another local tech giant, VK after having faced criticism from the likes of jailed Kremlin critic, Alexey Navalny, for allowing its platforms to used to amplify Putin's propaganda.
How successful Yandex's tactics to shrink its risk from inside and outside Russia remains to be seen -- given most of its operations and staff are stuck operating under diktats set by the Kremlin.
Earlier this month, the European Union added a second of Yandex's key execs -- co-founder, CEO and exec director, Arkady Volozh -- to its sanctions list, triggering another fall in its share price, although the company itself has not been sanctioned. Volozh responded by stepping down -- but Yandex called the EU's decision "wholly unjust" and "based on an inaccurate understanding of Arkady and what Yandex is all about."
"Rather than being sanctioned, Arkady should be lauded for building, from the ground up, one of the most independent, modern and progressive companies in Russia and one of the most innovative companies in Europe; a true pioneer in search, ride-hailing, maps and navigation, and autonomous vehicles to name but a few of the areas where Yandex excels," the company added in a statement expressing its disappointment Monday.
Back in March the EU also sanctioned deputy CEO and exec director, Tigran Khudaverdyan -- who stepped down at that point too. Yandex's share price has slumped more than 70% since mid February.