Russia’s Justice Ministry has placed the independent national pollster Levada Center on its official register of organizations “operating as foreign agents,” potentially threatening the widely respected research group’s existence.
The move was announced on the ministry’s website on September 5, adding that the circumstances were disclosed in an “unscheduled” inspection of the group’s documentation.
It comes just two weeks ahead of state and local elections, with the economy sputtering under low oil revenues and foreign sanctions and scattered signs of discontent as President Vladimir Putin mounts an effort to reassert Russia on the international stage.
The Levada Centre surveys political opinion among Russian people. Its director, Lev Gudkov, said the move, which comes two weeks before parliamentary elections, amounted to “political censorship”.
Following major anti-government protests, Russia adopted a law in 2012 that requires all NGOs receiving foreign funding and found to engage in vaguely defined “political activity” to register as “foreign agents.” Those who fail to comply face fines and potential closure.
The move comes less than a week after the respected pollster founded by and named after prominent sociologist Yuri Levada published its latest election survey, indicating a drop in the ruling party’s ratings. Russia holds a parliamentary election on Sept. 18.
Levada joins a growing list of well over 100 organizations and individuals targeted by the four-year-old law and its gradual tightening, including the Memorial Human Rights Center, Moscow’s Sakharov Center, and a number of human rights activists.
Russian and international human rights organizations have said the law was introduced to silence independent voices.
The Russian law’s influence is also thought to have extended beyond Russia’s borders, with free-media and democracy campaigners like U.S.-based Freedom House noting the legislation has spawned similar laws elsewhere in Eurasia.
The public perception of the phrase “foreign agent” has an especially negative connotation in post-Soviet Russia.
Gudkov said the Levada Center’s offices in Moscow were searched from August 12 to August 31 after an activist of the pro-Kremlin Antimaidan movement, Dmitry Sablin, formally accused the group of “conducting intelligence activities” and demanded that law enforcement bodies inspect the group’s operations.
Gudkov declined to link the Justice Ministry’s decision to upcoming State Duma and local elections, scheduled for September 18.
But he added that Levada’s offices were searched after it noted a decline in the popularity of the ruling United Russia party. (with AP, TASS)