Russia's only independent polling agency, the Levada Center, may face closure after Russian prosecutors ordered it to register as a "foreign agent" – a term that's synonymous with "spy" in Russian – under a new law designed to clamp down on nongovernmental organizations that receive any amount of funding from abroad and engage in any form of activity that authorities deem political.
The prosecutor's warning, delivered to the Levada Center on Monday and reproduced on the agency's website, essentially declares that Levada's world-renowned public opinion research is not considered by Russian authorities to be scientific work but rather "political activity" that is "aimed at shaping public opinion on government policy."
Levada, a registered NGO, is the only one of three major Russian pollsters that is independent of state funding and management. It has often had a tense relationship with the Kremlin. But many experts expressed surprise Monday over the prosecutor's threat, if only because Levada's sociological research – including regular tracking polls on Vladimir Putin's public popularity – has always been highly regarded on all sides of the political spectrum and is constantly cited by officials, parliamentarians, and state-run media.
In a statement, Levada's director Lev Gudkov said the order to cease publishing its work until it registers as a "foreign agent" puts the agency in "an extremely difficult situation."
"The prosecutors office is hanging our organization on the hook of possible fines while at the same time undermining its credibility and business reputation. Basically, the extremely vague definitions of 'political activity' and 'foreign funding' being applied here allow for the most arbitrary and elastic interpretations.... Hence, we face the possibility of administrative action against the management of our agency and even possible liquidation," he said.
Dozens of Russian NGOs have already been ordered by prosecutors to wear the "foreign agent" label in all their public activities, or face crippling fines and, ultimately, police shutdown. None have yet complied with the order, which they say does nothing to improve financial transparency and is solely designed to destroy their credibility with the Russian public, official institutions, and other organizations by saddling them with a label that means "spy" and nothing else in Russian.
Among those that have been singled out by prosecutors are the grassroots election monitoring organization Golos, the corruption watchdog Transparency International, and human rights monitors such as Memorial.
All of the targeted groups insist that they do not engage in partisan political activities of any kind, but that prosecutors are deploying a definition of "political" that includes any activities that might irritate authorities.
"This is not an attack against us specially but it is part of a growing assault against all NGOs and active civil society," says Alexei Grazhdankin, Levada's deputy director.
"What authorities want to do with Levada is to regulate the way we do our sociological work and control our relations with clients.... We are not engaged in political activity because we do not interfere, we just track the changes in public opinion and record them. It's not clear to us how this law is being applied, or how the publication of our data can be interpreted as a means to influence public opinion," he says.
"When some of our polls about Putin or the government get published, they get angry at us. We do other polls about the protest movement and the opposition that get them upset. We're just doing our job, which is to try to shed light on what's happening in the country," he adds.
The prosecutor's warning letter alleges that Levada has received $777,000 over the past four years in funding from outside groups such as the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and George Soros’ OSI Assistance Foundation.
The agency also earns money by doing sociological research and market surveys on behalf of foreign clients, Mr. Grazhdankin says.
In his statement, Mr. Gudkov insists that such funding has not amounted to more than 3 percent of Levada's budget in recent years.
"Unlike other polling organizations, we have no direct state financing or state grants for carrying out surveys that often entail significant financial and organizational expenses," writes Gudkov. "The funds we have received from foreign sources (including donations and grants won on a competitive basis) or payment for ordered surveys by foreign organizations (such as universities, mass-media, universities and consulting firms) makes up an insignificant part of the budget of Levada Center, basically between 1.5 percent and 3 percent in various years," he added.
All major NGOs have agreed among themselves to refuse prosecutors' orders to don the "foreign agent" label, which they argue is tantamount to swallowing a poison pill.
The authorities' next step, many analysts argue, will be to step up the pressure with huge fines until the biggest NGOs buckle, or send in police to close them down.
"In a sense we are returning to Soviet times, when all political information will be generated and doled out by the authorities," says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, an independent Moscow media consultancy.
"It's a convenient situation for the authorities, who can just write down the number of votes they need and it will be so reported. Economic indexes will grow constantly, and support for our beloved leader will be always buoyant. And it will go on that way until everything once again collapses," he says.