One of Russia's most respectful sociological research centers is the latest Russian NGO to be hit with the label of foreign agent. Here is how it will affect its work during the upcoming parliamentary elections.

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

One of Russia’s three leading polling centers, the Levada Center, has been recognized as a “foreign agent.” The organization was included in the list of agents following an unscheduled inspection by Russia's Justice Ministry. This means that the Levada Center cannot anymore conduct surveys or analyze the electoral situation in the country — including on the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place later this month.

Founded in 2003, Levada Center is one of the largest and most respectful sociological research centers in Russia.

“In the market of social research, we have three trusted majors. They are the pro-government Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), Russia’s Public Opinion Foundation (FOM), which is also pro-government but specializing in somewhat different areas, and the liberal Levada,” Pavel Salin, the director of the Center for Politological Research, told Russia Direct. “True, judging by its work in the past eight years, Levada is in solidarity with the authorities on the main issues. Still, it has regularly allowed itself some initiatives."

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Many experts attribute the move to attempts by the government to put pressure on Russian non-governmental organizations, particularly ones involved in politics.

“This will make reporting heavier for the organization so that they will not be able to participate in the elections in any capacity. At that, Levada is one of the central figures in the process. Also, it is a moral blow to the organization,” political analyst and electoral expert Arkady Lyubarov told Russia Direct.

Liberal politician Leonid Gozman echoes Lyubarov’s assessment. According to Gozman, everyone knows that Levada experts can be trusted, which is why they are under pressure.

“Essentially, attempts are made to shut them down because they are telling the truth,” Gozman told Russia Direct. “Everyone understands that Levada Center is unique. Everyone understands that the Center’s collaborators are most decent people whose words and conclusions can undoubtedly be trusted. Nobody doubts their words, either in Russia or in the world.”

Gozman added that the real effect will be that voters will have access to less accurate information in the run-up to elections.

“The main consequence for us will be less truthful information before the elections,” he said. “Also, there will be more manipulation and lies from above. Moreover, this will affect the situation in the country because Levada was telling the public what the reality actually was. The current situation shows that the authorities do not wish to know what is really going on. Neither do they want the others to understand it. This refers not to sociology alone, but to many other fields.”

Salin sees the move as a logical step towards restricting the availability of information in Russia and the continuation of the course of “building a rigid framework for the political system.”

“We are moving towards a state where all the more or less significant elements will be under control. This does not mean their annihilation, only a substantial limitation of their freedom,” Salin said. “Primarily, this refers to the expert community in general. Levada has not been shut down, but its work has been seriously impeded.”

What is a foreign agent?

The “foreign agent” law, adopted in 2012, attracted criticism from the start, and not just because the very title “foreign agent” carries a very negative connotation in the Russian mentality dating from the Soviet era. An organization is given the status if it engages in political activity and accepts donations from people or organizations outside of Russia. Since the law was passed, many Russian NGOs have given up all their foreign grants and stopped accepting funding from abroad.

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In the 2012 law, what constitutes “political activity” is left especially vague, so the concept can be applied to a wide range of organizations. More than once, conflicts have arisen when attempts were made to pin the label of “foreign agent” on groups that nothing to do with politics. In June 2016, a law was adopted that specifies the definition of political activity. According to the document, it includes conducting social surveys “aimed at forming social-political views”, organization of political gatherings and evaluation of the performance of officials.

An NGO is declared a foreign agent by the Ministry of Finance after a financial inspection of the organization. Afterwards, the group is added to a special list. The organization has the right to challenge the decision in court.

According to director of the Center Lev Gudkov, “current situation much complicates the work of our organization.” He states that the “foreign agent” status that may be interpreted as synonymous to a “spy” is going to prevent sociological surveys by the Center.

Big shoes to fill

Salin is convinced that Levada will continue to operate because it fills a particular void. According to him, the sociology market in Russia is already established, with every participant working for its own segment of the audience.

"Levada works for the liberal segment," he told Russia Direct. "If it is removed, there will be a vacuum which is hard to fill. Moreover, it is highly probable that its place will be taken by something obscure and uncontrollable. That is why the recognition of Levada Center as agent is not an attempt to shut it down but an attempt to make it play by new rules, that is, behave less freely.”

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Gozman also does not believe that the center can be replaced. There can be no substitute for such centers as Levada, he argues. To quote him, "they are going to struggle and try to lift the label. In fact, they do not receive any grants from anyone. Their clients include Russians as well as foreigners. It is like blaming Gazprom of being affiliated with foreign companies as it is selling gas to them.”

Lyubarev, however, thinks that Levada has little chance of reversing the decision. “Sometimes a label can be fended off, but examples are few," he said. "There are some organizations that can do Levada’s work but it takes many years in the market to occupy the niche. The right level of trust can be won only after decades of work in this quality.”