by Hannah Gais
Russia’s State Duma elections this week may have been historic for their wildly low voter turnout and another batch of accusations of voter fraud. But they also coincided with another crackdown on one of the country’s most esteemed civic society institutions, one that has offered foreigner lawmakers, researchers, and journalists an unbiased glimpse of Russian public opinion for decades.
Just weeks before Russians headed to the polls, the country’s Ministry of Justice declared the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent pollster, a “foreign agent.” The term, which carries a connotation of Cold War-era espionage comes from a 2012 law that requires all nongovernmental organizations receiving funding from abroad to register with the government and advertise themselves as such. Although the law ostensibly targeted political activity, “the definition is so broad and vague that it effectively extends to all aspects of advocacy and human rights work,” as Human Rights Watch notes. As a result, it’s hampered the activities of NGOs with varying goals, from the human rights group Memorial to something as seemingly mundane as a crane refuge.
Although troublesome, the decision isn’t that surprising. The Center’s director, Lev Gudkov, has been a longtime critic of Vladimir Putin, decrying his “relapse into totalitarianism” and the public’s participation in it. In addition, the Center was the subject of a Justice Ministry investigation about a year after the “foreign agent” law went into effect. Gudkov pushed back on the government’s claims, noting that the foreign donors made up a miniscule amount of their annual budget. And then, as now, he solemnly noted that the “foreign agent” label would make the organization’s work nearly impossible. It’d be wiser to shut operations down altogether.
This time around, it’s the timing, not to mention the government’s explanation, that ought to raise an eyebrow or two. The official rationale is that the Center has been receiving, but not properly reporting, funding from the U.S. government. Curiously, however, the announcement came days after the Center issued a report showing Putin’s party, United Russia, capturing a mere 31 percent of voters—an eight percent drop from the month prior.
Writing in The Washington Post, two researchers involved in the project in question, Theodore P. Gerber and Jane Zavisca, acknowledged that the Pentagon’s Minerva Initiative had provided funding for a joint project with the Levada Center since 2013. But it had no involvement in the researchers’ decision-making process, they argued. The Center, likewise, noted in a statement that its reporting had been aboveboard—all while hammering away at “this new wave of spy-mania” that is “reproducing the worst examples of totalitarian practices” in the “interests of power, ownership, and ideological control.” Speaking to Gazeta.ru, a Russian-language media outlet, Gudkov went a step further, noting that “this means the introduction of political censorship.”
For foreign journalists and amateur Russia-watchers—especially those with limited Russian-language skills—the Center has been a lifeline. For researchers like Gerber and Zavisca, it’s a willing partner, especially as tensions between Russia and the West have begun to play out in a university setting. Plus, in addition to its obvious Russian-language offerings, the Center provides a wealth of timely English-language material, including polling data and analysis. More importantly, though, forcefully limiting public opinion research could pose a unique danger at a time when U.S.-Russia relations are at an all-time low. Indeed, the Center has routinely provided insight into a country where, at least in the West, the government—not to mention the public—has been so wildly misunderstood.
Take, for instance, Putin’s approval ratings, which have hovered in the 80 percentile range for the past few years and have also been a point of inflection this election season. Public opinion polling has revealed a society that, rather than being brainwashed into embracing a strongman, has come to accept an aggressive, antagonistic foreign policy, especially in recent hotspots like Ukraine and Syria. A dip in Putin’s approval ratings in 2013 may explain Moscow’s decision to intervene in Ukraine the following year.
Strategic benefits aside, navigating the intricacies of public opinion has been particularly important when it comes to explaining Russia’s shift to the right—not to mention why international outcry over, say, a 2013 law banning gay “propaganda” had little effect. After all, 79 percent of respondents in a March 2015 poll supported the ban, while 67 percent believed it existed out of concern for “strengthening moral values.” The public accepts the cozy ties between church and state, wants the country to stay “strong” despite foreign sanctions, and prefers stability (53 percent) over democracy (7 percent).
These findings, although crucial, haven’t gone over well with Russian liberals and the opposition though. “They don’t want to accept that a large mass of people, poor and provincial, support an authoritative regime,” Gudkov told The Moscow Times. “But it means they’re effectively saying: I only rely on polls that agree with my point of view. It’s exactly what our respondents [who support Putin] say, too.”
Although what becomes of the Levada Center is still up in the air—it has made an appeal—the current kerfuffle is distressing for the foreign policy community writ large. Coupled with a paucity of experts, a decline in publicly available research can only led to further degradation of Russian coverage—just when we need it most.
Photo: Vladimir Putin voting in the recent Duma elections.
Hannah Gais is a New York-based writer with recent bylines in Al Jazeera America, First Things, U.S. News and World Report and more. She is an audience development associate at The Baffler, a nonresident fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, and the executive director of The Eastern Project. Formerly, she was the assistant editor at the Foreign Policy Association.