‘Spy-Mania’ Threatens to Blind Russia to Itself, Pollster Says

(Bloomberg) -- Russia’s biggest independent pollster said the country may lose its ability to understand itself because researchers are being branded as so-called foreign agents in a Kremlin-backed wave of “spy-mania.”

The label imposed on the Moscow-based Levada Center is equivalent to denouncing the group as “saboteurs” and “unpatriotic,” scaring away possible respondents to its polls, the head of the pollster, Lev Gudkov, said. It also has the effect of barring the organization from conducting political surveys during this month’s parliamentary elections, he said.

“Standing behind this new wave of spy-mania, repeating the worst examples of totalitarian practice in different countries, are quite cold and cynical interests of power, ownership and ideological control,” Gudkov said in a statement published on Levada’s website Friday. Restricting independent research may turn Russia into “a reservation for a poor and aggressive population that finds solace in illusions of national superiority and exceptionalism,” he said.

Russia’s Justice Ministry tagged Levada as a foreign agent this week under legislation that targets non-government organizations in receipt of funding from abroad and deemed to have involvement in politics. Groups on the list face stricter regulations and must mark all publications with the label, which recalls Soviet-era denunciations of foreign spies and fifth-columnists.

The decision was announced after Levada published a poll last month that showed support for the pro-Putin United Russia party had declined to 31 percent, and that fewer than half of Russians plan to vote in parliamentary elections on Sept. 18. Similar polls by Russia’s other two biggest pollsters, the Public Opinion Foundation, known as FOM, and state-run VTsIOM, show the ruling party may have more than 40 percent of the vote.

Benchmark Pollster

Levada plans to appeal the decision, Gudkov said. One of its most important missions is to serve as a “benchmark” against which pollsters “working for the Kremlin” can be measured, he said in a phone interview.

While Levada’s sociology is accurate, its political commentary following the polls isn’t neutral and is thus inappropriate, according to Alexander Oslon, the head of FOM.

Levada was targeted for having financial transactions with foreign entities including the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which had received grants from the Pentagon, according to the decision from Russia’s Justice Ministry, which Gudkov published on the website. The ministry also noted some of Gudkov’s public reports, in which he cited respondents’ as viewing Russia’s authorities as “mafia.”

The loss of independent monitors would leave sociology focused on trifling details, while the foreign-agent law highlights a dangerous move toward intimidation, according to Gudkov.

Policy ‘Beacons’

“Repressions in politics will only grow,” he said. “Foreign affairs will be about adventurism, domestic policy will be about more control.”

Russia’s government depends on polls as “beacons” for its policy, even while much of the research isn’t published, Igor Bunin, head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, said by phone. “You can’t work without polls in this semi-closed system, you just don’t understand what’s going on.”

The presidential administration works “closely” with FOM and uses VTsIOM for urgent research, while only “sometimes” looking at Levada’s papers, Kommersant reported, citing the Kremlin’s deputy chief of staff Vyacheslav Volodin at a meeting with political scientists this week.

The pollster has “all the necessary instruments to protect its position” in court, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on a Sept. 7 conference call.

Bubbles Rising

Oslon, who said his fund would comply with official requests not to publish a specific poll, called the foreign-agent law a “natural” reaction to “alien” money. While Levada is unlikely to be shut down, nothing tragic will happen if it -- or VTsIOM or FOM -- ceased to exist, he said.

“There would be some circles on the water and bubbles rising,” Oslon said. “Life would go on.”