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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.

Oyub Titiyev was on his way to get a new dental prosthesis when he was detained on January 9.

A human rights activist who has been detained on a drug-possession charge in Chechnya has written a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin saying that he is innocent.

In the letter published by the newspaper Novaya Gazeta on January 16, Oyub Titiyev accused police of planting drugs in his car and voiced concern that he could be tortured in an attempt to force a confession.

"The criminal case against me is fabricated.... I have not and will not admit guilt," Titiyev wrote in the letter, which is scrawled in ink and dated January 12.

"I want to inform you that if I in any way acknowledge that I am guilty of what I am accused of, it will mean that I have been forced to admit guilt by means of physical coercion or blackmail," he wrote.

The letter is addressed to Putin, federal Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin, and Federal Security Service (FSB) chief Aleksandr Bortnikov.

Titiyev, the head of the prominent Russian human rights group Memorial's office in Chechnya, was detained on January 9 by police who claimed they had found about 180 grams of marijuana in his car.

His arrest, on charges colleagues and other supporters also contend were fabricated, has underscored concerns in Russia and the West about the tactics employed by security forces under Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

Publication of the letter came a day after a lawyer for Titiyev said that he had been suffering severe pain and been denied the medical help he needs.

Almost a week after he was detained, Titiyev remained in a temporary police detention unit that has no medical staff, attorney Pavel Zaikin said on January 15.

Under Russian regulations for handling detainees, he should have been transferred to a facility with medical services, Zaikin said.

The lawyer said that Titiyev, 60, was on his way to get a new dental prosthesis when he was detained.

"He feels excruciating pain," Zaikin said, adding that Titiyev "is unable to eat without the prosthesis, and therefore the only food he is eating now is a puree for toddlers."

He said that the authorities had not allowed medical personnel from clinics outside the penitentiary system to visit Titiyev.

Zaikin also said that investigators told him that Titiyev -- the head of the prominent Russian human rights group Memorial's office in Chechnya -- would be transferred no earlier than January 19.

"Titiyev's colleagues have every reason to believe that such an attitude toward Titiyev is a way putting political pressure on him," Zaikin said.

On January 14, Zaikin said that some of Titiyev's relatives left Chechnya after police imposed pressure on them.

Memorial has charged that the case against Titiyev was "fabricated" to retaliate against the activist's human rights activities.

Colleagues say he is a devout Muslim and a teetotaler who does not use drugs, and call the possession charge absurd.

Putin's advisory council on human rights has urged the Investigative Committee to look into the circumstances of Titiyev's detention, saying there were "grounds to believe" the marijuana "could have been planted" in his car.

Western governments and human rights organizations condemned Titiyev's arrest and called for his release.

Chechen authorities have denied any political motivation behind Titiyev's arrest.

Activists say that Kadyrov, who was appointed by Putin in 2007 to head the region in the North Caucasus, rules through repressive measures and has created a climate of impunity for security forces.

They also charge that Kadyrov has been responsible for abuses that include kidnappings, disappearances, torture, and killings of political opponents.

Natalya Estemirova, who was Titiyev's predecessor at Memorial in Chechnya and was investigating alleged rights abuses in Chechnya by regional authorities and Russian military forces, was abducted and killed in Grozny in 2009.

Kremlin critics say Putin turns a blind eye to alleged abuses and violations of the Russian Constitution by Kadyrov because he relies on the former rebel to control separatist sentiments and violence in Chechnya, the site of two devastating post-Soviet wars and an Islamist insurgency that spread to Russia's other mostly Muslim regions in the North Caucasus.

With reporting by Current Time TV, Novaya Gazeta and Interfax

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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