Russia brands main independent pollster a ‘foreign agent’
Russia on Monday labeled its sole major independent polling agency a "foreign agent," the latest instance of what Kremlin critics say is the government's drive to muzzle civil society.
The justice ministry said the Levada Centre, which regularly surveys Russian public opinion about politics, “has been included in a register of non-commercial organisations that fulfil the functions of a foreign agent.”
The ruling comes less than two weeks ahead of parliamentary elections.
Levada’s director Lev Gudkov condemned the ruling as “political censorship,” saying it would make work for the pollster impossible to continue.
“The consequences of such a decision for us are devastating,” he told AFP.
The Levada Centre provides the main barometer of Russian public opinion that is most cited by international media.
Other major Russian pollsters, including VTsIOM, are state-controlled.
“This practically means the imposition of political censorship and the impossibility of independent polls,” Gudkov said.
“It’s the typical behaviour of this repressive regime.”
The justice ministry says it based its decision on an unannounced document check, but provided no reason.
Organisations deemed to engage in political activity that receive funding from abroad must register as “foreign agents” — a term many Russians associate with espionage.
NGOs say the law is aimed at undermining them and cracking down on civil society.
It has previously been used to target the independent election monitoring group Golos and leading human rights organisations including the Committee Against Torture and Memorial.
Levada will appeal against the ruling although “there is very little chance” of success, Gudkov said.
The centre is financed by commercial research commissions, including from foreign companies, foundations and universities, he said.
The US State Department condemned Russia’s move against the pollster and confirmed that the United States has worked with Levada in the past.
“We obviously believe that the action taken against the Levada Center is unwarranted, given their function,” spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.
“But more broadly, we’re concerned about the scope of a law that seems to put at risk NGOs and other democratically minded civic organizations within Russia,” he added.
“It’s our understanding that the Levada Centre is in fact independent and self-sufficient. We have worked with the Levada Center, as have other governments and organisations. It has an excellent reputation.”
The pollster managed to avoid falling under the “foreign agent” law in 2014 because the regulation covered only overseas grants at the time.
Amendments enacted this spring now make the law “absolutely unlimited,” Gudkov said.
The renowned sociologist Yury Levada opened the Levada Centre in 2003.
He had previously headed the All-Russia Centre for Public Opinion and Market Research (VTsIOM) agency, which he created in 1988 under former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms.
Levada left VTsIOM in protest after the government seized control of the agency during President Vladimir Putin’s first term in 2003. He died in 2006.