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Russia: Leading Polling Agency Fears Government Takeover

Russia's leading polling agency says the government is moving to strip it of its independence. The All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) was founded in the 1980s during perestroika and has always formally been a state-owned entity. But the pollster gets no state funding and the government has never interfered with its work. Now, VTsIOM is being reorganized and its board of directors will be replaced by government officials.

Prague, 15 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Yurii Levada, Russia's most recognizable and respected sociologist, is warning that the polling agency he heads is about to lose its independence under a government reorganization plan.

The All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) has become a familiar institution over the past 15 years. Since the days of perestroika, when they first began to quiz Russians about everything from political opinions to entertainment preferences, VTsIOM's team of sociologists has compiled what is widely acknowledged to be the most comprehensive picture of Russian society.

Although VTsIOM has always been a state organization, it receives no government funding, leaving Levada and his team complete independence in their choice of survey topics. But all this is about to change, as Levada recently announced at a news conference in Moscow.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Levada said the government's move to replace VTsIOM's board of directors with bureaucrats from the Labor and Social Affairs and Property Relations ministries amounts to a total takeover.

"[Until now] we have had the necessary authority and position so that no one interfered in our work. Now, under the pretext of reorganization, under the pretext of turning VTsIOM into a joint-stock company -- by the way, a state-run joint-stock company -- the leadership is being replaced. New people who have no connection to our work will come in. Everything we have worked for, including the property we acquired through our earnings, everything will be left in the hands of people who have never had any connection to us," Levada said.

Levada accuses the government of acting by stealth, using legal formalities -- in the quiet summer vacation period -- to bring VTsIOM under its control. None of the organization's current directors, including Levada himself, has been asked to stay on. As a result, once the new board is installed -- which is expected to happen in a couple of weeks -- Levada said he will leave the organization. He expects many fellow researchers to follow suit.

"People who have worked here for a long time -- and by our Russian standards 15 plus years, almost 16 years, is a long period -- some of those people will leave, part of them will no longer want to work here and will find other ways of supporting themselves. Practically, this will mean the end of VTsIOM as we know it," he said.

It remains unclear what prompted the government to turn its attention to Russia's leading pollster. A spokesman for the Property Relations Ministry, Aleksandr Parshukov, said the government is converting most of its 9,000 state-owned enterprises into joint-stock companies as a prelude to future privatization. Parshukov denied any political motivation behind the move or any singling out of VTsIOM.

Analyst Dmitrii Orlov at the Institute of Political Technologies, a Moscow think tank, agrees. Orlov said many state organizations are in the process of being turned into joint-stock companies. He notes the Kremlin has never publicly expressed dissatisfaction with VTsIOM's research. Orlov said Levada's accusations are most likely motivated by personal considerations.

"Levada says these things because he does not want to leave a post he has occupied for many years. He's a patriarch, everyone respects him enormously, but it's possible that the time has come for a change and he is not ready. That's what this is about," Orlov said.

But others suspect otherwise. What worries some analysts and politicians is that VTsIOM's impending reorganization comes amid a series of takeovers of private media outlets by government-controlled boards.

On its face, the takeovers of outlets such as the NTV television network, TV-6, and TVS were over business disagreements. But many commentators note that in all cases, the independent broadcasters were known for their hard-hitting investigations that caused the Kremlin more than a few headaches.

Duma Deputy Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Rightist Forces, reacted to the impending changes at VTsIOM by telling the newspaper "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that the organization's polls had "apparently really irritated the Kremlin."

Andrei Piontkovskii, director of Moscow's Center for Strategic Studies, told the same newspaper that in his opinion, VTsIOM's reorganization was part of a Kremlin-inspired move to "purge the entire information arena" before upcoming legislative elections in December and presidential polls next March.

Levada himself told RFE/RL that although VTsIOM's polls have consistently shown President Vladimir Putin's high popularity, the Russian public's growing dissatisfaction with the course of the war in Chechnya, among other issues, might have prompted nervousness in government circles.

VTsIOM's latest survey on the Chechen war, for example, showed support for the war among the Russian public falling to 28 percent, with 57 percent of those questioned favoring a negotiated settlement with the separatists. But Levada said VTsIOM's research is merely a reflection of society, so there is little sense in silencing the messenger.

"We do what our professional code of ethics tells us to do: we show the situation as it is," he said. "Some people like it, some don't. There are many things about what our polls tell us that I don't like. But it doesn't change anything. Maybe some people are upset about the polls we have done regarding the war in Chechnya. But those numbers will always upset someone -- like any statistic [has the potential to upset some group or other] in all countries of the world. But so what?"

The next few weeks will tell whether Levada's gloomy predictions will come to pass or if the government's reassuring words are well-founded.