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Russian research institute under threat

Roman Goncharenko / wgSeptember 6, 2016

Just two weeks before parliamentary elections, a renowned independent polling organization faces a government threat. Experts and politicians are alarmed, including in Germany.

Russland Moskau
Image: Getty Images/AFP/V. Maximov

For Manfred Sapper it is "another step towards Russia's self-isolation" and an "attack on academic freedom." In starker terms: a "catastrophe," the editor-in-chief of "Osteuropa" magazine told DW on Tuesday.

A day prior, Russia's Justice Ministry placed the Levada Center, an independent polling organization, on its list of "foreign agents." Since 2012, NGOs that receive funds from abroad have been labeled as such. "Political engagement" is broadly defined to include human rights, environmental and even AIDS organizations.

Most NGOs oppose their placement on the list, viewing it as defamation. The "foreign agent" label has been associated with espionage since Soviet times, compelling many NGOs to change how they conduct their foreign-related work - or their work entirely. Now, Levada risks the same fate, having been placed on the list by the Justice Ministry because of its US funding.

Pioneering work

Russland Lev Gudkov Levada Zentrum in Moskau
Levada Center Director Lev GudkovImage: DW/Y. Vishnevetskaya

"If we can't succeed in fighting this decision, it would mean Levada's eventual closure and dissolution," director Lev Gudkov told DW. "The team would remain, but the sociological work would come to an end, because we wouldn't be able to conduct research as a 'foreign agent.'"

It's a type of "political censorship" seeking to "dissolve the last independent research organization in Russia," he said.

The Levada Center began at the end of the 1980s as part of the All-Union Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VtsIOM). Yuri Levada, a respected sociologist, was one of its first directors. The center was a leader in opinion polling research, which hadn't previously existed in the USSR. Levada broke away from the state-run VtsIOM in the 1990s. Its independence has won it international respect.

Connection to election?

There's some speculation that the Justice Ministry's decision is related to Levada's recently published survey that suggests a loss in public support for the Kremlin's United Russia party. The findings showed 31 percent support, down from 39, for the party in elections taking place on September 18.

Gudkov doesn't see a direct connection. "It merely accelerated a decision already in progress," he said. "The repressive trend in domestic politics has been obvious for a long time, since the 2012 protests." Then, hundreds of thousands of people took to Moscow's streets to oppose United Russia and the re-election of President Vladimir Putin. Accusations of voter fraud during parliamentary elections the year before ignited the protest movement.

Nor does Manfred Sapper see the published poll as cause for the "foreign agent" listing; however, he sees an overall connection. A critical public that can be well-informed by Levada research is undesirable in Russia, he said.

Manfred Sapper, Redakteur der Zeitschrift "Osteuropa"
Sapper says the Russian government does not want a critical public, well-informed by Levada researchImage: M.Sapper

Support from researchers and politicians

Already in May 2013, threatened by the "agent law" and Levada's closure, Sapper started a petition to support NGOs and the Levada Center in particular. More than 1,400 academics, politicians and publicists from Russia, Germany and other countries signed it. Now that the threat has come to pass, Sapper is confident Levada will again receive the support it needs.

German politicians have also spoken out to protect Levada. "Another bit of democratic culture and free expression in Russia has come undone," the Green Party parliamentarian Marieluise Beck said in a statement on Tuesday. The Kremlin is trying to ban reality, Beck said, pointing to the timing of the justice ministry's decision against Levada and the pending Duma election.