Now that the Levada Center has been classified as a “foreign agent,” its work will become much more difficult. The first real test for the Levada Center comes with the upcoming Duma elections.

Lev Gudkov, the director of the Moscow-based Levada Center. Photo: Levada Center

On Sept. 5, Russia’s Ministry of Justice added the Levada Center, the nation’s largest non-governmental polling center, to the list of “foreign agents.” According to the Ministry of Justice, the Levada Center should be considered a foreign agent because it receives money from foreign sources, yet conducts its political and sociological work within Russia.

The Levada Center engages in survey taking and analysis, and publishes these results, thereby influencing the public. The Justice Ministry listed a number of companies from the United States, Britain Norway, Germany and Lithuania that sponsor Levada.

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The director of the center, Lev Gudkov, called it a political maneuver, stating that the document review was not done with care or consideration. In July, Russia’s conservative patriotic movement Anti-Maidan petitioned Russia’s Ministry of Justice to add Levada to the list of foreign agents. Just two months later, the organization was added to the list.

New challenges ahead for Levada

The Levada Center is one of the three large sociological survey centers in Russia, and the only one that is not owned by the government. According to the opinion of Levada deputy director Alexei Grazhdankin, acquiring the status of foreign agent will make it more difficult for Levada sociologists to conduct their research

“At this moment in time, even the words ‘foreign agent’ have a negative connotation, and limit the organization’s abilities,” he said.

Svetlana Vasilyeva, an expert in administrative constitutional law at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, added that an organization listed as a foreign agent faces new challenges and bureaucratic roadblocks while trying to conduct normal everyday activities. According to Vasilyeva, such organizations "are forced to give updates about sources of capital, and are faced with constant audits. The Ministry of Justice, which added the organization to the registry, has the right to check on it at any time.”

What about the Duma elections?

This new status, in effect, prevents the Levada Center from publishing data connected to the Russian parliamentary elections, which are due to take place on Sept. 18. Vasilyeva argues that “any comment concerning the election, even the most neutral, can be interpreted as a pre-election provocation. Such meddling in government business is strictly forbidden for organizations with the status of foreign agent. If the organization breaks this rule, it is fined.”

Grazhdankin agrees that the Levada Center will now be forced to withhold from polling on issues concerning the upcoming election. He said that legally, "we have the right to conduct polling prior to the election, but politically we cannot publish the results.”

What’s next for Levada?

Some political scientists and analysts see this new status for Levada as connected to a couple of recent polls, which seem to indicate the fall in the popularity of the ruling party, United Russia. The newspaper Vedomosti interviewed the vice president of the Center on Political Technologies, Alexei Makarkin, on the subject.

"The government has the desire to defame a sociological survey group that does things the government does not like," he said. "So the government tells everyone that Levada is acting for the interests of foreign governments.”

However, politicians supporting the decision of the justice ministry say that there is no political agenda, that there is just the question of how the general public is informed.

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For example, Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the Federation Council’s International Affairs Committee, wrote on Facebook that, “In the last two years, the Levada Center received more than 300 million rubles ($4.6 million) from foreign sources. Everyone has a right to know that.” [The Federation Council is the upper house of the Russian parliament – Editor’s note].

Within the Levada Center itself, there is great disagreement with the decision. According to Grazhdankin, all cooperation with foreign companies is limited to marketing. That means that foreign companies do not impact the results that are published and cannot influence public opinion.

According to the sociologist, Levada will challenge the decision of the Ministry of Justice. At the same time, Grazhdankin said that if its appeal were to be denied, the center would have to decline its international funding in order to continue functioning normally.