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Rallying behind Russia's 'foreign agent' Levada Center

Hundreds of scientists, authors and politicians say Russia has escalated its policy against NGOs in the country. A push to close the well-regarded Levada Center is the most recent blow to Russian civil society.

It all began with article he read in the Russian press, said Manfred Sapper, editor-in-chief of the German-language "Fachzeitschrift Osteuropa," a journal covering issues in eastern Europe and Russia. He read that Russian prosecutors had warned the Moscow-based Levada Center and were threatening to shut it down.

"I reached the conclusion that we had to do something," Sapper told DW.

Manfred Sapper Copyright: Manfred Sapper March 2012

Sapper started the petition to show support for the Levada Center

Because it receives funding from outside Russia, the Levada Center, a highly regarded Russian opinion and research non-governmental organization (NGO), has to register as a "foreign agent." Like other NGOs, it has refused to do so, saying such a requirement is defamatory.

The "Osteuropa" journal started a petition appealing for support with the Levada Center that has gained more than 1,400 signatures from Germany, Russia and other countries.

Propaganda Stalin would support

"This attack on the Levada Center marks the start of a new phase in the political efforts to intimidate and to destroy those forces of Russian civil society that the state finds unacceptable," the petition read.

The "foreign agents" stigmatization, it continued, is a means of propaganda with its roots in Stalinism, and should not be accepted by the international community. Some 600 NGOs have been examined by prosecutors since March 2013.

Dressed in a white dress shirt and surrounded by cameras, Russian Alexei Navalny stands with a hand in his back pocket. (Photo: Maxim Shemetov/REUTERS)

Beyond NGOs, anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny and many protestors have been indicted

The petition also encouraged the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe "to adopt a resolution condemning the use of the prosecutor's office to conduct mass reviews of Russian non-profit organizations and to stigmatize them as 'foreign agents.'"

The Levada Center is Russia's most important opinion research institute and a bastion for independent research in social sciences in Russia, Sapper said.

"Regardless of their discipline, all German scientists who want to get a picture of Russian society and policy, as well as changes in public opinion, rely mainly on data from the Levada Center," Sapper added.

A crucial Russian voice

Wolfgang Eichwede, former director of the Research Centre for East European Studies attached to the University of Bremen, considers the Levada Center one of the most important points of reference in Russia's scientific landscape.

Its founder, Yuri Levada, was a well-known Russian sociologist and political scientist who played a major role during the Perestroika movement and in establishing social sciences and opinion research in Russia.

"The independence of the Levada Center is crucial when it comes to information about Russia," Eichwede told DW.

For Klaus Bednarz, an author and, previously, a German public broadcasting correspondent in the former Soviet Union, the Levada Center remains one of the most important sources of information about contemporary Russia. The Russian prosecutors' action against the institute represents President Vladimir Putin's most serious attack on the "tender, slowly growing sprouts of civil society in Russia," Bednarz said, adding that the Levada Center is a thorn in the side of the Russian president.

"As a KGB man, Putin is a man who values control more than anything else."

Russiaonly hurting itself

Ruprecht Polenz Photo: Silvera Padori - Klenke

Polenz said the measures taken against the Levada Center only hurt Russia's image abroad

Ruprecht Polenz, chair of the foreign affairs committee in Germany's lower house of parliament, said he also relies on Levada Center information and has been a sharp critic of steps taken against the institution. Polenz also chairs the German association that publishes the "Osteuropa" journal.

If the center is forced to close or no longer operate under the same conditions as it has up until now, it would be a serious blow to research in Russia, Polenz told DW, adding that it's dangerous for any country to stand in the way of opinion research and that Russia needs to be convinced that its measures against the Levada Center should be reconsidered.

"I cannot understand what Russian officials are doing at all," he said. "If you don't want to know what people in your own country think, how can you create sensible policies?"

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