Proscribing pollster, Kremlin ‘takes control of the narrative’


Russia’s only major independent pollster, the Levada Centre, has been designated as a “foreign agent”, the Russian Justice Ministry said on Monday, two weeks ahead of nationwide parliamentary elections.

Foreign agents in Russia are nongovernmental organizations that receive funds from abroad and engage in “political activity,” a definition that critics say is intentionally vague, The Washington Post adds:

The Levada Center had been targeted by conservative Russian politicians, who claimed that the organization was secretly carrying out polling work for the Pentagon and demanded an investigation. The Center had recently reported that support for United Russia, Russia’s ruling party, had fallen to 50 percent, indicating dissatisfaction over an economy suffering because of low oil prices.

The organization’s analysts regularly express liberal views that do not jibe with the opinions of government officials. At the same time, Levada Center pollsters had reported the same, high favorability ratings for President Vladimir Putin as pollsters more closely aligned with the Kremlin. The ‘foreign agent’ law was enacted after street protests in 2012 over parliamentary elections that many criticized as fraudulent. Other groups that monitor elections, such as the organization Golos, also have been targeted by that law.

The Justice Ministry began a spot-check of the Levada Center after its report on United Russia, Lev Gudkov (above), the organization’s head, told the Russian television channel Dozhd, Russia’s only liberal independent news station “It’s a very bad thing for us, if they indeed have declared us [a foreign agent],” Gudkov said.

“This manifests the increase in internal repressions carried out by the country’s leadership,” he said. “If they won’t cancel this decision, it will mean that the Levada Center will have to stop working, because you cannot conduct polls with such a stigma put on you.”

Moscow’s move comes as a surprise because Levada is not the only pollster to register sliding support for United Russia, The Financial Times adds. The Russian Public Opinion Research Centre (VCIOM) said the party’s support was down to 41 per cent in late August from 44 per cent in late July. FOM, another pollster, said the party slid to 44 per cent at the end of last month from 47 per cent at the end of July.

Levada joins a growing list of well over 100 organizations and individuals targeted by the four-year-old law and its gradual tightening, including the Memorial Human Rights Center, Moscow’s Sakharov Center, and a number of human rights activists, adds RFE/RL.

Speaking to RFE/RL in August, Levada analyst Aleksei Levinson explained the growing split within the self-perception of average Russians.

“There are two different levels in the consciousness of Russians,” Levinson said. “On one level we see the values of a great power, its position in the world, our might, our authority, our glory, and so on, as a world power. Russians think this is all well and good and is getting better and better. But there is another level — the level of our everyday lives. The first level is seen on television, and the second level is seen in the neighborhood story or in our own gardens.”

Gudkov believes the move against his agency — which broke away from the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) in 2003 after the latter was taken over by the Kremlin — marks a new stage in Russia’s development under Putin.

“I think we are talking about the beginning of a new phase of political reactionism, the return of totalitarianism, and the significant strengthening of the hard-line bloc, with its KGB ideology from Soviet times,” he said.

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