Kremlin lobs another shot at marketplace of ideas
The takeover of an independent polling firm is the latest move under 'managed democracy.'
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."