Kremlin lobs another shot at marketplace of ideas

The takeover of an independent polling firm is the latest move under 'managed democracy.'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The proverbial canary in the mineshaft of Russia's ongoing democratic experiment may well be Yury Levada, a pioneering sociologist whose roller-coaster career has tracked the political vicissitudes of the past 50 years here.

Fired from his academic job under Leonid Brezhnev, reinstated by reforming Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr. Levada has lately been showing signs of distress under the presidency of Vladimir Putin.

In early September, employing a Soviet-era technicality, the Russian government took control of the independent All-Russian Center for Public Opinion and Market Research (VTsIOM), founded and until last month headed by Levada, and replaced its governing board of professional sociologists with officials from the Kremlin and various state ministries.

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After VTsIOM's management was forcibly changed, Levada and his entire staff of 100 abandoned the offices and equipment they had used for 15 years and set up a new private polling agency, which they named VTsIOM-A.

"I've always just tried to do my job," says Levada, a jovial, white-haired bear of a man. "Sometimes I notice that someone doesn't like it. Just now, I can see they don't like it."

Critics warn that the attempt to put Levada out of business is part of a larger Putin-era pattern, which Kremlin theorists call "managed democracy."

The idea is to maintain outward democratic forms, while ensuring that those in power are not actually challenged by serious opposition or trenchant criticism. Over the past three years all independent Russian TV networks have been taken over by Kremlin-friendly companies and the rest of the press straitjacketed by tough new laws and a pervasive culture of self-censorship.

"The security sweep that has already cleaned up the media is being extended into sociology," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "It's obvious that the aim of the operation was to get rid of Levada."

Some of the data generated by Levada's VTsIOM may have incurred the wrath of authorities. While other polling agencies were indicating the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party on track to win parliamentary elections slated for December, Levada's surveys over the past summer showed the opposition Communist Party with a strong lead. On the hypersensitive issue of the four-year-old war in Chechnya, Levada's latest study found that only 27 percent of Russians want to continue military action, and 58 percent want to stop the conflict.

The government says that the seizure of VTsIOM, Russia's oldest and best-known public opinion agency, was a routine "reorganization" of a company that was created in 1988 - under Soviet law - as a state-owned body. Though nominally government property, VTsIOM had survived since the collapse of the USSR without public funding.

"We have always had our own contracts with clients, in Russia and abroad, and that was how we fed ourselves," says Levada.

The government appointed Valery Fyodorov, a young sociologist who once campaigned for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, to manage the new state-controlled VTsIOM in Levada's place. Mr. Fyodorov agrees that "Levada is an outstanding scientist; we have no claims against him on that score."

But he alleges that the "commercialization" of VTsIOM under Levada detracted from serious research. "Social issues stopped being the research priority, and that was wrong," Fyodorov says. Under his leadership, he adds, the agency will focus on social issues like poverty, railroad reorganization, and municipal reforms. "The state has decided to keep VTsIOM as its property, and that means we have to solve important tasks and not the private task of providing employment to the staff," Fyorodov says.

Levada says he can't understand why the Kremlin should fear scientific public opinion research. But, he agrees, the ups and downs of his own career suggest that it always has. When he graduated from university, in 1952, sociology was banned in the USSR as a "bourgeois science." Levada was allowed to carry out limited surveys during the political thaw initiated by Nikita Khrushchev in the 1960s, but his institute was closed down as the freeze returned under Mr. Brezhnev in 1972.

Three decades later he finds himself in a similar situation. "They are afraid of their own shadows," he says. "They really worry that someone might use these figures against them."

Kremlin methods, however, have changed since Communist times. Under Putin, overt censorship and direct secret police action are rare. In "managed democracy," the state exploits "commercial disputes" and acts through companies it controls - as it did to take over the independent NTV, TV-6 and TVS networks in recent years - or employs legal maneuvers of the sort used last month to dispossess Levada.

Gleb Pavlovsky, the head of the Effective Policy Foundation, a Kremlin-funded think tank, says that "a regime of managed democracy had to be established [after Putin came to power] in 2000, in order to counter real threats from shady groups who had seized power in Moscow and in the regions. That task has been accomplished now. Today, Putin's power is based on the moral authority of a leader of civil society and not upon an authoritarian dictatorship."

Levada sees danger in the Kremlin's approach.

"The real threat today," he says, "is the darkening of our future, this tendency to degrade the democratic freedoms that were gained under Gorbachev." He adds, however, that he believes that "it's impossible to restore a full dictatorship in Russia today, because it is already a semi-open country."

Fyodorov says the state will continue to pursue Levada through the courts for "stealing" the name of VTsIOM. "They secretly registered a new parallel private organization, VTsIOM-A," he says, "and thereby usurped the brand of a state organization."

Levada says he'll do what he's always done: keep working.

"My entire team came over here with me, and they are all good professionals," he says. "We have good clients, and there is work to be done. These are critical days."

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