MOSCOW – Over the past decade, the Levada Center has forged a reputation as Russia’s most respected and independent pollster. Could it now be facing closure?
Prosecutors this week officially warned the polling agency that it is in breach of legislation requiring politically engaged NGOs that receive foreign funding to register as "foreign agents." The center acknowledges that a small portion of its budget comes from foreign sources. Prosecutors allege that its research constitutes "political activity."
The warning comes shortly after the Levada Center released polls showing President Vladimir Putin’s popularity falling, sparking allegations that the prosecutor's move was politically motivated.
The Levada Center's director, Lev Gudkov, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the move threatens the pollster's continued existence.
"[The center] is under threat of closure. In these circumstances, we cannot carry out independent research," Gudkov says. "We need sources of financing. We finance our own programs and projects by redistributing money we earn in other spheres. But now under this widened interpretation [of the NGO law], any of our partnerships – even if we work with an organization represented here in Russia but which potentially has a foreign source of financing -- then we ourselves fall into the category of foreign agent."
Gudkov adds that the requirement that it register with the Justice Ministry as a "foreign agent" -- a loaded term that implies disloyalty or even treason -- puts the center in an "extremely difficult position." Prosecutors have "brought us to the brink of sanctions on the one hand and are undermining our authority and business reputation on the other," he said.
Refused To Comply
The Levada Center is just the latest organization to fall afoul of Russia's controversial NGO law.
In April, the electoral watchdog Golos, which was instrumental in exposing alleged voter fraud in the contested 2011 State Duma elections, became the first NGO to be fined for failing to declare foreign-agent status.
Numerous NGOs, most notably human rights organizations, have refused to comply with the law, arguing that rights work does not constitute "political activity." They say they will file suits in court before they register as foreign agents.
Critics of the legislation say that in labeling such organizations as "foreign agents," the Kremlin is attempting to stigmatize them. The authorities, for example, used the same term to describe Ryan Fogle, a U.S. diplomat detained on suspicion of spying last week.
In a statement published
on the Levada Center website, Gudkov wrote that foreign funding accounts for just 1.5 to 3 percent of the polling agency's budget.
The Levada Center was established in 2003 by sociologists who left the state-owned All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (VTsIOM), citing political pressure. It has since established a reputation as Russia’s most independent and reliable pollster.
RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report