Russia's Justice Ministry has placed the independent national pollster Levada Center on its official register of organizations "operating as foreign agents," potentially threatening the widely respected research group's existence.
The move was announced on the ministry's website on September 5, adding that the circumstances were disclosed in an "unscheduled" inspection of the group's documentation.
It comes just two weeks ahead of state and local elections, with the economy sputtering under low oil revenues and foreign sanctions and scattered signs of discontent as President Vladimir Putin mounts an effort to reassert Russia on the international stage.
Levada Center's director, Lev Gudkov, told TV Dozhd after the announcement that the determination could force the closure of his organization.
"That is a very bad thing for us," Gudkov said. "If we are really recognized as [foreign agents] and the decision is not changed, that will mean the end of Levada Center's activities -- because with such a label it is just impossible to hold any social polls [in Russia]."
Levada is one of Russia's largest nongovernmental polling and sociological-research groups, and conducts high-profile surveys in a range of topics from the popularity of politicians to Russians' views on Moscow's bombing campaign in Syria or the severity of the country's current economic crisis.
Levada joins a growing list of well over 100 organizations and individuals targeted by the four-year-old law and its gradual tightening, including the Memorial Human Rights Center, Moscow's Sakharov Center, and a number of human rights activists.
Russian and international human rights organizations have said the law was introduced to silence independent voices.
The Russian law adopted in 2012 requires any nongovernmental organization that receives funding from abroad and engages in political activity to formally register itself as a "foreign agent."
Amendments introduced to the law in 2014 allow the Justice Ministry to forcefully add NGOs to the list of "foreign agents." Failure to comply can result in heavy fines and/or jail time.
The Russian law's influence is also thought to have extended beyond Russia's borders, with free-media and democracy campaigners like U.S.-based Freedom House noting the legislation has spawned similar laws elsewhere in Eurasia.
The public perception of the phrase "foreign agent” has an especially negative connotation in post-Soviet Russia.
Gudkov said the Levada Center's offices in Moscow were searched from August 12 to August 31 after an activist of the pro-Kremlin Antimaidan movement, Dmitry Sablin, formally accused the group of "conducting intelligence activities" and demanded that law enforcement bodies inspect the group's operations.
Gudkov declined to link the Justice Ministry’s decision to upcoming State Duma and local elections, scheduled for September 18.
But he added that Levada's offices were searched after it noted a decline in the popularity of the ruling United Russia party.
The Justice Ministry said the Levada Center, founded in 2003, was the 141st organization on its list of "foreign agents."