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Russian polling agency is victim as Kremlin opts to shoot the messenger

Modes of thought

Just ahead of elections, bad news about support for the ruling party likely was seen as posing a threat.

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    Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev meet with members of the United Russia party in Moscow, Sept. 6, 2016.
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With less than two weeks to go before parliamentary elections, and the ratings of the ruling United Russia party dropping fast, the Kremlin has apparently decided to shoot the messenger.

The Levada Center, Russia’s only independent public opinion agency, was forced to stop work this week, a move that critics of the Kremlin read as an effort to block public perceptions that the ruling party’s popularity is plunging – even though nobody is directly disputing the highly respected organization’s findings.

The Kremlin has pledged that voting on Sept. 18 will be open and transparent, so as not to lead to the kind of mass protests that erupted following allegedly fraud-tainted elections five years ago.

But clean voting stations are only one aspect of fair elections, the critics say, and the crackdown on Levada is just one of many examples of how authorities are micromanaging other key aspects of the electoral process to ensure desired results.

While Russia is a highly centralized state where key decisions are made at the top, it also has the working institutions of a parliamentary democracy, including elections, to meet the expectations of millions of Russians.

It was public pressure that led authorities to put cameras in voting stations, and take other measures to squeeze fraud out of the election-night process. At the same time, the Kremlin absolutely does not want unpleasant surprises. A myriad of bureaucratic measures have been adopted to prevent unwanted candidates or non-approved parties from participating, and to control the information stream reaching voters.

The sudden crackdown on Levada, probably unplanned, suggests authorities are intervening to preempt any public impression that a United Russia victory may not be inevitable.

“We have a very contradictory system,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. “We don't really have a fully functioning democracy, but we have an increasingly well informed society. People are free to make up their minds. Hence, there is an enormous amount of under-the-surface pressure on parties, candidates and civil society to make results come out the way that validates our authorities’ design. And these methods have to be constantly updated.”

The 'foreign agent' threat

Levada has been added to the official list of “foreign agents,” a poison pill that connotes “spy” and makes it almost impossible for it to continue working. A late August investigation by the Ministry of Justice – which cited an article from this newspaper as evidence – found that the agency was breaking the law by receiving money from abroad while distributing opinions about government policies and influencing public perceptions about political and social matters.

Analysts say that’s a Catch-22 for any sociological agency, whose bread-and-butter is measuring public opinion and publicizing the findings, sometimes for foreign clients. Even Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov agreed Thursday that Levada Center is “one of the oldest [institutions], of course, with extensive experience and authority in the area of sociological and polling services” and suggested that it might launch an appeal.

Levada, however, is banned for the time being from any further election polling and faces a shutdown of three months or more, according to its deputy director, Alexei Grazhdankin.

“This really spells the destruction of any independent sociological research in this country,” says Levada’s beleaguered director, Lev Gudkov. “We’ll appeal, of course, but our expectations aren’t very high.”

The center has been facing the “foreign agent” threat for more than three years, thanks to its business model.

“You cough in the wrong place, look at some official the wrong way, and that gets construed as political activity,” says Mr. Gudkov. “It becomes criminal to fulfill orders from foreign institutions. Since we don’t get any state money [unlike Russia’s two other major pollsters], the only way we can finance ourselves is by doing market research.”

High regard for Levada

According to the Ministry of Justice, Levada has received funding from several foreign sources, including Gallup and at least four US universities.

The fact that Levada was not placed on the “foreign agents” blacklist in the past probably speaks to the widespread high regard for its work. Its findings usually track closely with those of the two major state-connected pollsters, FOM and VTsIOM, including President Vladimir Putin’s consistently high public approval ratings.

In recent weeks, however, all three agencies have recorded a drop in the popularity of the United Russia party, but Levada’s findings were more dramatic. A Levada poll released at the beginning of September found that UR’s support among likely voters had fallen from 39 to 31 percent in the previous month, and from 57 to 50 percent among all respondents. Backing for Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev plunged from 55 to 48 percent, while Mr. Putin’s rating remained stable at 82 percent.

“Russians are quite loyal to the Kremlin in the abstract. They see Putin as the symbol of the nation, and above the fray. But people are hurting economically, and there’s a lot of frustration out there. So, obviously, the government party becomes the whipping boy,” says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the left-wing Institute for Study of Globalization and Social Movements in Moscow. “I don’t usually agree with people who blame the Kremlin for everything that happens, but in [Levada’s] case it seems to be the simple truth. They just didn’t like that news, so they shut it down.”

Monitor article cited

A report by the independent RBK news agency said that the Ministry of Justice inspectors found that Levada’s outspoken director, Gudkov, had made disparaging remarks about Russian state authorities, including describing it as “Mafia power.”

Inspectors also cited a February article in The Christian Science Monitor, published in Russian translation, in which they alleged Levada data was employed to claim that “Russian authorities [were behind] a movement in social networks and street protests against US President Barack Obama.”

The original article did cite Levada poll findings on Russian attitudes to Mr. Obama, and quoted the agency’s deputy director as saying the anti-Obama public mood was a product of the “geopolitical situation,” but any suggestion in the article that more powerful forces might be behind the anti-Obama attitudes were offered by completely different sources.

Levada’s director, Gudkov, does in fact speak his mind rather plainly. Though he doubts the Kremlin is directly behind the effort to close his agency, he says there is little doubt that “this corrupted and mafia-like authority has had a very nervous reaction to the publication of our data. That’s what we are actually accused of: simply recording the public’s opinions about corrupt authorities and politicians.”

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