La vie en rose: Why the Kremlin blacklisted Levada Center

By Cyrus Newlin

On September 5, the Levada Center, Russia’s only independent pollster, became the 141st organization included on the Russian government’s registry of “foreign agents.” This decision was taken only two weeks before Russia’s parliamentary elections, in advance of which Levada Center polls showed a steep drop in support for the ruling United Russia party. The designation of Levada Center as a “foreign agent” demonstrates the Russian government’s growing intolerance of dissenting political narratives—in this case, that many Russians are disaffected with the state of their country—even if those narratives originate in objective, sociological research. By blacklisting Levada Center, the Kremlin sends a message to all pollsters that it is only interested in hearing a certain version of the truth. 

Under the ‘Legislative Act of the Russian Federation regarding the Regulation of the Activities of Non-Profit Organizations Performing the Functions of a Foreign Agent’ the label “foreign agent” may be applied to any non-profit organization that receives funding from foreign sources and engages in “political activities.” Designated organizations must self-identify as a “foreign agent” in all official statements and publications and submit to intrusive government oversight, though they may also cut ties with its foreign funders and petition to have the foreign agent designation removed. Since the passage of the foreign agents legislation in 2012, the Russian government has used this designation to harass, discredit, or, in some cases, shut down organizations that it disapproves of or views as somehow threatening to the state. 

While the foreign agent designation does not formally ban Levada from operating, the stigma of working with a “foreign agent” could scare off the commercial clients who comprise most of Levada’s revenue, according to Lev Gudkov, Levada Center’s director. This would make it hard to fund large-scale sociological and public opinion polling, for which there is no paying customer. Moreover, having to identify as a foreign agent makes conducting a methodologically-clean poll almost impossible. As Gudkov quipped in an interview with TV Rain, “Imagine a situation where our interviewer arrives and says, ‘Hello, I’m a foreign agent. Would you please respond to a few questions?’ It is completely absurd.”

The investigation and subsequent designation of Levada Center as a foreign agent followed a letter of appeal to the Justice Ministry from the nationalist fringe website Anti-Maidan, which insinuated that Levada was “commissioned” by the Pentagon to gather information on Russia, and that the University of Wisconsin was an “intermediary” in this relationship. These (debunked) accusations are part of a wider effort by Anti-Maidan to paint the United States and Western Europe as imperialist powers plotting a Ukraine-style “Maidan” inside Russia, a narrative which buffers the Kremlin’s claim that Russia is in a soft war with the United States. 

The Levada Center is one of three major public opinion polling organizations in Russia, and the only one that is truly independent of the Kremlin. Its reputation for accurate, independent sociological research has earned it wide trust among academics, businesses and policy-makers inside and outside of Russia. As political scientist Daniel Treisman wrote in 2013, after government prosecutors threatened Levada for the first time:

In Russia, two other pollsters — the Public Opinion Foundation, or FOM, and the All-­Russian Public Opinion Center, or VTsIOM — generally do respectable work. But their frequent contracts for the Kremlin raise questions…. At present, Levada serves as an anchor. If the results of other pollsters drift too far in the Kremlin's favor, they risk losing their reputation. Were there no Levada Center, even Putin's political operatives would have to wonder whether the friendly pollsters were slanting results to ingratiate themselves.”

Levada’s potential departure from the arena does not spell the death of public opinion polling in Russia, but if Levada is either silenced or politically compromised, there will be a greater level of uncertainty around what the Russian public really thinks. 

Obscuring the actual political temperature of Russia brings the Kremlin one step closer to consolidating complete control over the political narrative inside of Russia, a process that gained new urgency following the May 2012 Bolotnaya Square protests in Moscow. Unnerved by the speed and cohesion of political dissent, the Russian government responded by expanding its control over media organizations, harassing opposition political movements, and clamping down on the two sources of information they did not already control: social media and internet news outlets.

Employing its enhanced control of the media and internet landscape, the Kremlin has continued to present the narrative that Russians support their government, both by airing government-friendly news coverage on state-funded television networks and by silencing or otherwise marginalizing alternative sources of information and dissenting opinion. Unlike Rain TV or other liberal news outlets, public opinion pollsters were not initially seen as a threatening “alternative” source of information. In January 2016 Levada polls showed strong support for the ruling United Russia party—65% of respondents said that if the election were held right now they would vote for United Russia—and they continue to show high approval ratings for Putin. However, support for United Russia has declined steadily since January, and it threatened to drop below 50% in the run-up to the September parliamentary election. Perhaps of greater concern to the Kremlin was that only 40% of respondents intended to vote at all, reflecting a growing disillusionment with Russia’s political process. For comparison, more state-friendly pollsters such as the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) showed that 75% of Russians expect to see United Russia remain in the Duma and that 70% of Russians intended to vote. Only after publishing unfavorable numbers did Levada Center find itself in the Kremlin’s crosshairs. 

In light of five years of increased control over information, it is not all that surprising that the Kremlin would want to prevent certain polling data from reaching the public. The Russian government’s blacklisting of Levada Center sought to erase early signs of disenfranchisement in order to buffer against another Bolotnaya-style protest, something the Kremlin has been particularly sensitive to in the aftermath of the Maidan protests in Ukraine. Absent Levada Center, public opinion polls will continue to show that despite a deep economic recession, Russians’ support for their government remains steadfast. 

What is surprising is that the Kremlin itself has lost interest in knowing the truth. By blacklisting the only independent pollster in order to preserve a narrative that Russians’ support in their government is unwavering, the Kremlin also sacrifices its own understanding of Russian public opinion. 

I asked Lev Gudkov to explain this seeming paradox following an event at the Kennan Institute on November 22. He replied that the Kremlin has its “own” pollsters in FOM and VTsIOM, and doesn’t see the absence of Levada as harmful to its understanding of public opinion. If true, this marks a change in the Kremlin’s attitude towards Levada Center—from a necessary anchor on the accuracy of other pollsters to a dangerous alternative source of information. After years of controlling information in Russia while simultaneously seeking to understand what Russians are really thinking, the Kremlin appears to be entering the information unreality that it itself created. Even if the Kremlin truly thinks it receives accurate information from FOM and VTsIOM (and any polling, by them and others, that may be provided to the government but not the public), blacklisting Levada Center sends a message to all pollsters that the Kremlin is only interested in good news, and encourages them to present a rosier picture of reality. In the early run-up to the 2018 election, the Kremlin appears to be wagering that the benefit of a narrative of strong public support will outweigh the danger of not understanding what the public truly thinks. 

Cyrus Newlin is a research intern with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program.