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Analysis: Sidelining Independent Pollster, Kremlin Takes Control Of The Narrative

  • Robert Coalson

Levada Director Lev Gudkov: "I think we are talking about the beginning of a new phase of political reactionism, the return of totalitarianism, and the significant strengthening of the hard-line bloc, with its KGB ideology from Soviet times."

Levada Director Lev Gudkov: "I think we are talking about the beginning of a new phase of political reactionism, the return of totalitarianism, and the significant strengthening of the hard-line bloc, with its KGB ideology from Soviet times."

With Russia in the final stretch before the September 18 State Duma elections, the Justice Ministry has tagged the country's only independent sociological-research organization, the Levada Center, as a "foreign agent."

"They want to restrict studies related to the elections and prevent further publications about the falling rating" of the ruling United Russia party, wrote Grigory Melkonyants, co-director of the Golos election-monitoring NGO, which was itself deemed a "foreign agent" in 2015.

Levada Director Lev Gudkov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on September 6 that unless the organization is able to appeal the government's decision, it will likely have to close down.

"With the status of a 'foreign agent,' it would, of course, be very difficult to conduct sociological or marketing surveys," he said. "Considering the level of fear in this country, people and organizations are going to refuse to have anything to do with us."

Under the law, organizations listed as "foreign agents" must identify themselves as such in all published references. Perhaps more importantly in this case, they are not allowed to participate in the election process in any way.

Earlier this month, Levada published a survey that showed a significant decline in public support for United Russia and growing dissatisfaction with the performance of the government. The poll found that 50 percent of respondents who had decided which party they would vote for are supporting United Russia, down from 65 percent in January. Only 40 percent of respondents said they are likely to vote at all. (Levada polls, however, consistently show high public support for President Vladimir Putin personally.)

INFOGRAPHIC: 'Putin's' Party Losing Popularity (click to expand)

By comparison, the state-friendly pollster the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) released a poll this month showing that 70 percent of respondents say they are likely to vote. That poll reported that 75 percent of respondents would like to see United Russia represented in the next Duma.

Levada's polls have little mass influence in Russia and are rarely cited by Russian state television. However, they are respected by specialists in Russia and abroad as the most accurate snapshots of Russian public opinion. Levada's surveys have been used by analysts seeking to demonstrate the extent to which official Russian elections results may have been falsified by the authorities.

Levada Director Gudkov believes that with the country mired in an economic crisis with no end in sight, the government has decided to rely on its control of television to manipulate public opinion.

"They are emphasizing that -- the control and manipulation of public opinion," he told RFE/RL.

Aleksei Levinson: "There are two different levels in the consciousness of Russians."

Aleksei Levinson: "There are two different levels in the consciousness of Russians."

Speaking to RFE/RL in August, Levada analyst Aleksei Levinson explained the growing split within the self-perception of average Russians.

"There are two different levels in the consciousness of Russians," Levinson said. "On one level we see the values of a great power, its position in the world, our might, our authority, our glory, and so on, as a world power. Russians think this is all well and good and is getting better and better. But there is another level -- the level of our everyday lives. The first level is seen on television, and the second level is seen in the neighborhood story or in our own gardens."

Gudkov believes the move against his agency -- which broke away from the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) in 2003 after the latter was taken over by the Kremlin -- marks a new stage in Russia's development under Putin.

"I think we are talking about the beginning of a new phase of political reactionism, the return of totalitarianism, and the significant strengthening of the hard-line bloc, with its KGB ideology from Soviet times," he said.

Economist Yevgeny Gontmakher agrees and warns that the government could be making a fatal mistake.

"In 1983, [Soviet leader] Yury Andropov wrote: 'If we are speaking honestly, we have never really properly studied the society in which we live and work,'" Gontmakher wrote on his blog for Ekho Moskvy. "And eight years later because of the feckless leadership of the country, the Soviet Union fell apart. Are those who are repressing independent social analysis not repeating the same mistakes that were so fatal for Russia?"

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondents Lyubov Chizova and Yelena Rykovtseva contributed to this story
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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