The Case of Sociologists: Who Needs Honest Opinion Polls?

11 June 2013

The Analytical Center of Yuri Levada, one of Russia’s most reputable polling organizations, has received a warning from the Savelovsky interdistrict prosecutor’s office for its unwillingness to register itself as a “foreign agent.” According to the prosecutors, the Levada Center violates a new law that prohibits NGOs from being involved in political activity and receiving foreign funding without revising the organization’s status. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya argues that it is not the foreign funding, but rather the publication of sociological data that has provoked the Kremlin’s ire, and talks about where honest sociology can lead.

 

Despite being formally founded in 2003, the Levada Center is the oldest research institute in modern Russian history: the core team originated at VTsIOM, but broke from the organization ten years ago in protest over a change in management. At the time, the Kremlin was trying to toughen control over institutes capable of influencing public opinion. Before Yuri Levada’s departure, VTsIOM was, in fact, an independent organization. After splitting from VTsIOM, Levada created a new center that immediately became one of Russia’s three top-ranked and most reputable sociological institutes. Following Yuri Levada’s death in 2006, Lev Gudkov replaced him as head of the organization.

For many years, the results of sociological research conducted by the Levada Center differed little from those of two other well-known institutes—VTsIOM and the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM). The Kremlin has always exerted political control over both of these organizations, which explains people’s lack of confidence in them. Nevertheless, all three institutes had long been in agreement about the relative stability of Putin and United Russia’s poll standings. There was no trick here: experts, political analysts, and journalists confirmed that the stability of Putin’s regime was indeed based on considerable public support. Of course, one can argue that this support was due to a lack of alternatives: with the Kremlin controlling the central media and conducting a policy directed at destroying the opposition, political competition has been reduced to a minimum. Nobody knows what the president’s poll standings would be in an environment of free speech. This being the case, the presence of the so-called “Putin’s majority” was a documented fact.

The situation began to change around the middle of President Dmitry Medvedev’s term, as the process of public disillusionment with government institutions and bureaucracy took hold. On a federal level, poll standings remained stably high, but in some regions the picture was slowly altering, mainly due to consequences of the financial and economic crisis, an increasingly apolitical population, a decrease in revenues, growing tariffs for housing and communal services, and numerous corruption scandals. Putin, who had built this system, started to be held responsible for all the negative social and economic developments to come out of it.

The ruling party’s 2009–2010 election results were sagging. This was the first sign that the ruling party’s support was decreasing, albeit slowly. However, Putin and United Russia’s recipe for success still consisted of the absence of an alternative.

The 2011 Russian legislative elections became a turning point. The label “crooks and thieves,” coined by lawyer and activist Alexei Navalny to describe the Russian government, gained popularity. According to unofficial data, United Russia’s real election results were very different from those announced by the Central Election Commission. It was the Levada Center that established through closed opinion polls that only about 32 percent of those who voted (and 21 percent of all respondents) supported the United Russia party, instead of the officially stated 46 percent. Such a disparity between the opinion polls and the election results came as a surprise to the government and made it question the “usefulness” of independent sociological organizations.

It was the Levada Center that established through closed opinion polls that only about 32 percent of those who voted (and 21 percent of all respondents) supported the United Russia party, instead of the officially stated 46 percent.

This happened eighteen months ago. Today, the regime’s situation has only worsened. As the Kremlin sees it, the regime’s stability is at stake and should be protected at any cost. This is how the government arrived at the idea of “proper” opinion polls: polls that conceal changes in public opinion by regularly providing “proof” of the ruling party’s high approval ratings.

Clearly, the Levada Center has been making the Kremlin feel uncomfortable. While VTsIOM and FOM continued to report stably high standings for Putin and United Russia, Denis Volkov, a sociologist at the Levada Center, wrote the following:  “Putin’s approval rating has been slowly but steadily declining for the last five years. From September 2008 to March 2012, the ratings saw a 25 percent points decrease (from 88 to 63 percent), and consequently the number of those who do not approve of his activity rose from 10 up to 36 percent. In addition, around one fourth of the population supports the opposition movement’s slogan ‘Putin, go away!’”

The Levada Center’s sociologists had another surprise for the Kremlin: the poll’s results on who Russians would like see serve as president after 2018 were published in early April and proved disappointing for Vladimir Putin. Despite the fact that the president’s approval ratings remain high, signs indicate that the Russian people are tiring of him and his problem-solving methods. Powerful emotions regarding the head of state are giving way to а more pragmatic approach. As a result, according to the Vedomosti newspaper, with reference to the Levada Center’s data, there is a growing wish in Russian society to see neither Putin nor Medvedev, but someone else as the next president of the country. As an opinion poll conducted in late March shows, 55 percent of Russians would like to see someone new ascend to head of state. Only 22 percent of respondents would like to see Putin reelected, and a paltry 8 percent want to see Medvedev go for a second term.

Another recent Levada poll has revealed that the number of respondents who agree that United Russia is a party of “crooks and thieves” has for the first time exceeded 50 percent. Leader of the United Russia caucus in the State Duma Vladimir Vasilyev claimed earlier this year that the ruling party had successfully shed the “crooks and thieves” label. However, the Levada poll indicates that this is untrue. In May, another blow was dealt: United Russia’s poll standings hit a record low of 24 percent, having dropped by 10 percent in April alone.

Such results could not be consistent with those provided by the pollsters close to the government. Sooner or later, the opinion polls had to show differing results, and this happened for the first time in May. According to FOM, if the presidential elections were held this weekend, 50 percent of Muscovites and 62 percent of all Russians would vote for Putin. In other words, FOM indicates a growth in Putin’s poll standings. Muscovites were also questioned about their attitudes toward protest rallies. The majority of respondents declared that if protests were held in the near future, they would refuse to participate in them, either in support of Putin’s policy or against it. However, according to the Levada Center’s data, only 29 percent of Russians would vote for Vladimir Putin.

It’s unsurprising that the presence of a major, truly independent polling organization irritates the Kremlin. The existence of a law demanding that NGOs involved in “political activities” be registered as “foreign agents” creates a temptation to use it against polling organizations. By interpreting this law as broadly as possible, the prosecutor’s office has decided that the publication of poll results influences public opinion and therefore represents not scientific, but political, activity. The Levada Center’s director, Lev Gudkov, denies the center’s involvement in any political activity and says that the letter from the interdistrict prosecutor’s office claiming the presence of “circumstances, encouraging the violation of a federal law” and the subsequent warning has put him in an extremely difficult position by practically forcing the organization to cease its activities as an independent pollster. On May 23, the heads of Russian sociological organizations (including VTsIOM and FOM) signed an address in which they declared it unacceptable to interpret the publication of opinion polls as “political activity.”

As an opinion poll conducted in late March shows, 55 percent of Russians would like to see someone new ascend to head of state. Only 22 percent of respondents would like to see Putin reelected, and a paltry 8 percent want to see Medvedev go for a second term.

In late May, the Levada Center announced that it has suspended its foreign funding. According to Vedomosti, Denis Volkov said that foreign sources had been partially financing two important projects of the Levada Center: one researching civil society and the protest movement; the other, Muscovites’ sentiments and political preferences. Both projects were put on hold due to foreign funding being frozen. In order to raise funds for the above-mentioned projects, the Levada Center will open an e-wallet on yandex.money and register it to Denis Volkov. This way, the sociologist explained, money will not be donated directly to the center’s account, which will protect it from future allegations of receiving foreign funds. The Levada Center will report on financial motion in the e-wallet by publishing numbers and providing the public council, which includes respected public figures, with detailed information.

Speaking to Vedomosti, an anonymous source sized up the situation as follows: the new law does not limit the activity of NGOs; rather, it gives them an opportunity to decide on their position, which the Levada Center’s example demonstrates. It’s likely not that simple, though. According to Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov, the Golos Association, which also refused to register as a foreign agent, might soon be closed down, despite the fact that it renounced all its foreign financial sources.

It remains difficult to predict what the Kremlin might do with regard to the Levada Center. It is possible that the government won’t dare apply “pressure” to such a respected organization, the activity of which has never been openly “political” (as opposed to the regime’s interpretation of the Golos Association’s activity.) Still, nobody can vouch for the future of the Levada Center, let alone the futures of other independent organizations that exist to conduct research and protect human rights. The general trend of events in Russia suggests quick progress toward a strict authoritarian regime.

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