Putin-Polling Is a Dangerous Business

Russia’s independent pollster, Levada, is now a ‘foreign agent,’ shining a light on the risky world of opinion research in the Kremlin’s shadow.


Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Photographer: Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP Photo

Russia's designation of its most respected polling agency as a foreign agent last week, hobbling the Yury Levada Centre, shows the extraordinary challenges pollsters face in the country.

As Russia runs out of money stashed away during a decade-long oil boom, opinion polls are reflecting a growing discontent with the government. Its move on the Levada Centre comes a week after Levada released a poll showing an 8 percent decline in the popularity of the country’s ruling party, United Russia, and less than two weeks before parliamentary elections set for Sept. 18.

According to Lev Gudkov, who heads Levada, the government may as well have shut it down, since his pollsters will now have to introduce themselves as such to Russians. 

“There are fears lingering since the Soviet times [that] ‘foreign agent’ means a spy or a saboteur to most Russians,” Gudkov said. He added that the group will be cut off from public funding and subject to never-ending checks by government watchdogs, paralyzing it.

Nothing prevents Levada from doing its work “as long as it wears the foreign agent badge at all times,” said Nikolay Starikov. It was Starikov's movement, created out of fear that the opposition might stage a revolt like Ukraine’s 2014 Maidan revolution, that spurred the Justice Ministry's review of Levada.

Polls play a special role in Russian politics. While elections have been repeatedly dismissed by international and independent domestic observers as undemocratic and unfair, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sky-high approval rating—registered by all polling agencies, including Levada—supports his claims of legitimacy. For want of other forms of feedback, the Kremlin is extremely sensitive to opinion polls, many of which are conducted for internal use and never get published.

Levada is one of three leading Russian polling agencies; the other two are linked to the Kremlin, one owned by the government and the other relying largely on government contracts. Levada's political opinion surveys and popularity ratings are widely quoted by the Russian and international press. 

The U.S. and Germany voiced their concern about the move. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, and first deputy chief of staff, Vyacheslav Volodin, both said Levada could appeal the decision in court. Russia's courts are strongly influenced by the government.

Adopted after anti-Kremlin protests rocked Moscow in 2011 and 2012, the law on foreign agents targets nongovernmental organizations that receive foreign funding and are engaged in “political activities,” a phrase interpreted so broadly that even NGOs fighting HIV fall into this category. “The West is using NGOs as a tool of spreading destabilization,” said Starikov, who sees the opposition as a fifth column directed by the West.

Levada is registered as an NGO, which allows it to seek government funding and reduces its tax burden. The review conducted by the Justice Ministry revealed that Levada had received $115,800 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison for helping its research program on housing conditions in different countries. Of that amount, $8,400 was donated by the U.S. Department of Defense, according to www.usaspending.gov, a U.S. government procurement site, which lists Levada as a subcontractor. Gudkov said Levada has been working directly with specific researchers at the university for more than 10 years and that it didn't know how the school got its funding.

The Ministry of Justice listed several public comments made by Levada’s researchers as proof of the pollster's political activity. In one, Gudkov described the Russian state as “a closed authoritarian system, where the government is dependent on power-wielding agencies, secret services, oligarchs, [and] officials and represents their interests.” Levada maintains that its business is disseminating information and that it isn't engaged in political activities.

Elena Bashkirova of the pollster Bashkirova & Partners, which works closely with Russian government agencies, disagrees. “Of course we pollsters influence public opinion—this is our job,” she said. She said there are no politics behind the government's decision and that Levada should simply have abided by the law. 

Levada polls generally don’t produce results that are strikingly different from those of its competitors, VTsIOM and FOM. What makes the difference, in Gudkov’s opinion, is Levada's commentary and interpretation. The group conducts in-depth studies of Russians' value systems, fears, and aspirations. One of its famous ongoing surveys, conducted with Ukrainian colleagues, examines how the people of the two closely linked countries, currently at war, regard each other.

Levada's polls also serve as a reference point for other agencies, Gudkov said. In their absence, he warned, falsified and manipulative polls are likelier to emerge. Bashkirova said nothing will change, expressing confidence in the pollsters' professionalism.

When Russia seized control of Crimea, in Ukraine, in 2014, the Kremlin sent teams of pollsters to conduct surveys of its residents, political consultant Yevgeny Minchenko of Minchenko & Partners said. The pollsters asked people whether they would prefer Crimea to be an autonomous region within Ukraine, become independent altogether, or join Russia, he said.. Minchenko said these polls may have influenced decisions on the referendum on Crimea's status. Initially planned for May, that vote was brought forward by two months, and the question was changed from one about comprehensive autonomy to one about joining Russia.

The vote was for joining Russia. The vast majority of United Nations member nations didn't recognize it as legitimate. It remains unclear which agency conducted the survey. Minchenko declined to name it.

The annexation of Crimea sent Putin’s approval rating soaring to 88 percent in the spring of 2014, after a prolonged decline. Since then it has dropped by only six points, to 82 percent, according to a Levada poll conducted in August, despite the nation's painful recession.

That isn't the case with other state officials and institutions. Putin gets all the credit for restoring Russia’s superpower status, both Gudkov and Bashkirova note. Russians hold Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, his cabinet, the State Duma, and the United Russia party, which Medvedev officially heads, responsible for Russia's economic crisis, born of falling oil prices and Western sanctions after Russia's incursions on Ukraine.

All these ratings have dropped below 50 percent in recent months, with only 37 percent of those polled expressing approval of Parliament, according to Levada. Gudkov said ratings are sure to keep falling and discontent to keep growing in the next couple of years, as Russia exhausts the remainder of its rainy-day fund, already only a third of what it was two years ago.

There might be no trustworthy agency around to register the decline.

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