Unless the Levada Centre, which began doing surveys in 1987, is able to appeal against the justice ministry’s ruling, it will be forced to close down due to the stigma of the label, said the director Lev Gudkov. The move comes less than two weeks before parliamentary elections.
Survey results the Levada Centre published at the beginning of September showed that only 31% of respondents were ready to vote for United Russia, which has a huge majority in parliament and in regional administrations around the country. This was down from 39% a month before. The president, Vladimir Putin, noted the party’s falling rating in an interview with Bloomberg, but blamed it on critics he suggested were not “ready to take on responsibility” for making decisions.
Although a new electoral commission head seen as more progressive was appointed in March, opposition candidates have been marginalised in state-controlled media and even attacked at appearances this year. The elections have been moved from December to September, which is likely to promote low turnout and benefit United Russia. Complaints of vote-rigging in the 2011 parliamentary elections sparked a huge street protest movement.
The justice ministry based its decision on checks of the Levada Centre carried out in August at the request of MP Dmitry Sablin, a leader of the Kremlin-loyal Anti-Maidan movement. Although Levada stopped accepting foreign grants in 2013, Anti-Maidan accused it of being paid by the Pentagon as part of a project with the University of Wisconsin. Gudkov said the centre had worked on studies with the university but denied any links to the US defence department, telling the independent TV station Rain the checks were a “political hit job”.
Putin signed a law in 2012 requiring non-government organisations that receive funding from abroad and engage in vaguely defined “political activity” to register as foreign agents. Besides putting this label – which is often used to mean spy in Russia – on all their publications, non-governmental organisations must submit to burdensome audits and reporting requirements. The leading electoral monitor, Golos, was declared a foreign agent in 2014.
The legislation has been criticised as a crackdown on civil society, and the United Nations has asked Russia to amend it. Human Rights Watch said in August the justice ministry had declared 138 groups as foreign agents. At least 22 of these have shut down, including the Memorial anti-discrimination centre, LGBT group Coming Out and the Committee Against Torture. Many more, such as HIV outreach group the Rylkov Foundation and environmental group Dauriya, face uncertain futures.
Author: Alec Luhn