The Russian presidential race is heating up about as much as it is going to, given the almost inevitable victory of incumbent President Vladimir Putin, but the country’s top independent pollster announced on Tuesday that it will no longer publish surveys about the contest due to fears it will be attacked by officials for “meddling.”
Reuters reports the Levada Center is “regarded as one of Russia’s three main pollsters and the only one not to be close to the authorities.” One of its two main competitors is directly owned by the state, while the other does a great deal of work for Putin’s administration.
Sociologist Stepan Goncharov of the Levada Center told Reuters it would no longer publish pre-election polls because it was designated a “foreign agent” by the Russian government in 2016 due to its funding. That means it could be fined or shut down entirely for transgressing Russian laws against foreign agents engaging in politics.
Several other nations wish the Russians had laws against domestic agents engaging in foreign politics. One of them is the United States, which is considering legislation called the Defending Elections from Threats by Establishing Redlines (DETER) Act that will punish nations which interfere with the U.S. political process. Russia is prominently mentioned as a culprit and specifically named as the target of retaliatory measures if it acts again, but the U.S. intelligence community has also warned about interference from China, Iran, and North Korea.
Russia’s “foreign agent” law was promulgated late last year and promptly denounced as a human rights infringement because it threatened the already-perilous state of media freedom in Russia.
Russian officials insisted at the time that the law would not apply to domestic organizations, but the Levada Center was named a foreign agent because it allegedly receives funding from other countries, including the United States. The Center argued to no avail that it suspended foreign funding after it was first targeted as an alleged foreign agent in 2013.
“The consequences of such a decision for us are devastating – with such a label, we won’t be able to work. This practically means the imposition of political censorship and the impossibility of independent polls. It’s the typical behavior of this repressive regime,” Levada Director Lev Gudkov warned in September 2016.
Vice News notes that Levada’s polling for the Russian presidential election has not been “dramatically out of whack with what state-controlled rival agencies have put out recently,” and show Putin headed for a comfortable re-election victory.
However, Levada’s research shows dramatically lower turnout figures than the state-controlled VTsIOM agency. Levata found only 28 percent definitely plan to vote and 30 percent who said they probably would, while VTsIOM says 70 percent will definitely vote and 11 percent are likely to vote.
The dramatic difference in turnout models would likely displease Putin, who wants to be seen winning in a landslide with an enormous turnout. Voice of America theorizes that since the strongest Putin critic, Alexei Navalny, has been barred from the election, voters might be bored by a race between Putin and several candidates who either don’t stand a chance or don’t really oppose him.
Gudkov said in an interview on Tuesday that Levada would still conduct surveys during the election but would not publish the results.
“Commenting on the pollster’s announcement, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday it was ‘unfortunate’ that Levada will not be able to publish its polls but said it was a matter of following the law,” VOA reports.