24th Oct 2016

EU condemns Russian attack on last real pollster

  • Moscow: Levada's Gudkov said the listing marks "the return of totalitarianism" (Photo: Jay Springett)

The EU foreign service has urged Russia to reconsider its listing of Levada, the country’s only independent pollster, as an “agent” of foreign powers.

It said in a statement on Tuesday (6 September): “We call once again on the Russian authorities to reconsider their decisions on branding Russian NGOs as ‘foreign agents’, which is clearly aimed at restricting their independence and threatening their very existence”.

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It described the listing as part of broader “restrictions on independent civil society”.

It also said the decision was “of particular concern ahead of the State Duma elections of 18 September”.

The last Russian parliamentary elections, in 2011, saw thousands of people protest in Moscow against alleged vote rigging.

The Levada listing came just a few days after the NGO published a survey which said that the popularity of United Russia, president Vladimir Putin’s political party, had fallen from 65 percent in January to 50 percent in August and that just 40 percent of people intended to vote.

By contrast, state-friendly pollsters said this month that United Russia had 75 percent support and that 70 percent of people would vote.

Reacting to the listing, Lev Gudkov, Levada’s director, told the RFE/RFL news agency: “With the status of a 'foreign agent,' it would, of course, be very difficult to conduct sociological or marketing surveys … Considering the level of fear in this country, people and organisations are going to refuse to have anything to do with us”.

He added that the decisions marks a new stage in Putin’s authoritarianism.

“I think we are talking about the beginning of a new phase … the return of totalitarianism, and the significant strengthening of the hard-line bloc, with its KGB ideology from Soviet times”, he said.

The listing was issued on Monday by Russia’s justice ministry.

It said in a statement that Levada, which began work in 1987 and which has more than 60 offices in Russia, had received funds from four US universities, from US pollster Gallup, British pollster Ipsos Mori, and from Norway’s Fafo research institute.

It described one of the US schools, the University of Wisconsin, as being itself an agency of the US department of defence.

The “foreign agents” law, which came into force in 2012, obliges designated groups to declare their status in all their activities and to submit detailed audits of their operations.

The Levada listing brings to 141 the number of entities that carry the label. The list includes Golos, an independent election monitoring group, and Memorial, one of Russia’s oldest human rights NGOs, which also aimed to protect the historical record of Stalinist-era crimes.

Levada’s findings were rarely published by state-run Russian media.

But its reporting was widely cited by foreign media, such as British broadcaster the BBC, US newspaper The New York Times, and the Reuters news agency.

Speaking to EUobserver last year, Denis Volkov, a Levada sociologist, warned that Putin was trying to exert full control over the information available to Russian people.

He described pro-Putin propaganda as an attempt to create a confusing parallel reality.

“The more people see it, the less they understand what’s going on. It’s not information. It’s about creating emotions … a few facts, but mixed with fabrications and twists which are appealing to the imagination”, he said.

He urged EU countries and the US to maintain support for Russian reformists.

“If the West abandons the situation and says ‘OK. Nothing can be done’, those people in Russia who are still interested in the West and who believe in Western ideas - what Putin would call the ‘fifth column’ - will also feel abandoned. It would be foolish to lose and betray these people”, he said.

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