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Russian Polling Agency Stops Publishing Over Closure Fears

The Levada Center was listed as a foreign agent in 2016 under a new law aimed at countering what the Kremlin claims is outside influence on public life in Russia. (file photo)

Trying to gauge what Russians are thinking about the upcoming presidential election just got tougher.

The country's main independent polling agency, the Levada Center, has said it has stopped publishing results of opinion polls on the election.

The reason? Levada fears legal repercussions if it does.

That's because the center was listed as a foreign agent in 2016 under a new law aimed at countering what the Kremlin claims is outside influence on public life in Russia.

Levada is not a foreign company, but has received foreign funding. And, in the eyes of authorities, that makes it a foreign agent.

Lev Gudkov, Levada's director, told the Russian daily Vedomosti on January 16 that the agency is conducting election polling but will not publish the results during the campaign.

Why? Gudkov said he fears if that data was published now it could be interpreted as election meddling. And if that happens, it could lead to moves to close down the pollster, Gudkov said.

Commenting on the pollster's announcement, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on January 16 that it was "unfortunate" that Levada would not be able to publish its polls, but said it was a matter of following the law.

Putin, whose approval ratings top 80 percent, is set to easily win a fourth, nonconsecutive, term in the March 18 vote.

Polling on Putin's public support is largely consistent among Levada and state-owned polling agencies, including the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM).

Voter Turnout

Where they have differed, however, is on recent polling on possible turnout for the presidential election.

In December, Levada polling data found that 28 percent of respondents said they would definitely cast a ballot in the election. A further 30 percent said they were "likely" to vote.

Polling numbers from VTsIOM were much more optimistic. According to its polling, 70 percent of respondents were set on voting, with a further 11 percent "likely."

Levada Center director Lev Gudkov (file photo)
Levada Center director Lev Gudkov (file photo)

Gudkov noted to Vedomosti that no Russian election has had a voter turnout higher than 78 percent.

Valery Fedorov, the director of TVsIOM, told the daily that his agency was predicting voter turnout for the Russian presidential election at between 67 and 70 percent.

He also offered an explanation as to why his agency's polling data on possible turnout differed from Levada's.

"We carry out telephone polling, while Levada, probably, does it door to door. I trust the quality of our polls," said Fedorov.

While it may seem a point of dispute only among experts, possible voter turnout for the Russian presidential election is turning out to be a key factor in what is expected to be a predictable Russian presidential election outcome.

Anticorruption crusader and opposition leader Aleksei Navalny has been barred due to a fraud conviction that he and his backers say is politically motivated. Navalny has called on supporters to boycott the election.

Many others have declared their intention to run in March. They include veterans of past campaigns -- ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal Grigory Yavlinsky -- as well as Communist nominee Pavel Grudinin and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak.

While none poses a serious challenge to Putin, the Kremlin is worried about voter apathy and has focused on boosting turnout to make Putin's victory as impressive as possible.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.