On Sept. 5, Russia’s Justice Ministry declared the country’s leading independent polling organization, the Levada Analytical Center, to be a “foreign agent.” The designation applies to nongovernmental organizations that take part in “political activities” and receive foreign funding.
The “foreign agent” label saddles its recipients with burdensome monitoring and reporting requirements. But it’s especially harmful for an institution that relies on the trust of potential survey respondents.
Suspicion of foreign influence has been on the rise in Russia, and the “foreign agent” moniker connotes “spy.” It discredits the Levada Center in the eyes of the public and will probably put the internationally respected pollster out of business.
Social science will suffer as a result. The Levada Center has generated a remarkable trove of information about Russia’s society, politics, and economy over the past quarter century. Its high-quality work inspired us to collaborate with it on numerous projects, including the study that served as the initial pretext for labeling it a foreign agent.
Our research with the Levada Center is basic social science
In July, the website of a pro-Kremlin group named “Anti-Maidan” called for the Justice Ministry to deem the Levada Center a foreign agent because of its work on a project sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department. Anti-Maidan claimed the University of Wisconsin was an “intermediary” taking orders from the Pentagon. That is a misleading characterization of the project in question, on which we are the principal investigators.
Our research is a broad sociological study of the relationship between homeownership and societal stability in four post-Soviet countries with emerging housing markets. We examine how housing contributes to well-being, social networks, civic engagement and political grievances. We have collected focus group and survey data addressing these questions in cooperation with local organizations in each of the four countries we are studying. Levada Center was our partner in Russia from the time we started the project in 2013.
The research is indeed funded through a grant from the Minerva Research Initiative of the U.S. Defense Department. This program supports basic research on social science topics relevant to national and global security. We applied in response to an open call for proposals examining “determinants of societal stability.” Our proposal was selected through a competitive peer review process, similar to those employed by other major federal funders of science such as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
We alone — not anyone in the Pentagon or anywhere else — conceived, designed and implemented our project. The Minerva Initiative’s involvement was to select the project and provide the funds necessary to carry it out.
The Minerva program insists on giving social scientists the freedom to pursue their projects as they see fit rather than respond to government dictates. It simply funds projects that it believes will illuminate issues important to global stability. The guarantee of academic freedom was a necessary condition for us to apply for Minerva program funding. It was also important to our international partners, with whom we have been open about the funding source from the outset.
The Levada Center’s “foreign agent” designation follows sinking poll numbers for the ruling party
The attack on the Levada Center shows that academic freedom is imperiled in Russia. As we recently argued in the Washington Quarterly, since annexing Crimea in early 2014, the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin has stepped up claims that the United States and its allies seek to destabilize Russia.
Authorities have used the “foreign agent” law to pressure organizations that they claim are working for hostile governments to set off a “color revolution” in Russia. In May 2016, the Russian parliament expanded the foreign agent law to specifically cover public opinion research, a signal that the Kremlin wanted to move against the Levada Center.
The Levada Center faced similar scares in the past. We believe it survived until now because it reported high approval ratings for Putin; those reports were especially credible given its reputation for objectivity.
But recently, the center showed declining support for the ruling party and for Putin, just before the parliamentary election. These poll results have nothing to do with foreign funding. They reflect the reality of growing popular discontent in Russia in the face of enduring economic crisis and corruption. Rather than acknowledge that reality, the regime has chosen to muzzle the messenger.
If the Levada Center closes, it will be Russia’s loss
Based on our experience of more than two decades of conducting social science research in Russia, we predict that losing the Levada Center will have profound consequences. It will precipitate a rapid demise of independent social surveys of Russians. Other Russian pollsters will balk at projects sponsored by foreign entities. No credible domestic funding sources are available.
There will be lasting harm to Russia’s social scientists and policymakers, who need to formulate solutions to Russia’s problems on the basis of scientific evidence rather than conjecture. If, as we expect, the Levada Center’s fate deters Russian social scientists from working on Western-funded projects, it will undermine the government’s recent efforts to secure a respectable position in the international science community, improve the standing of its country’s universities and attract foreign scientists to work in Russia.
To thrive, social science research must be free from political interference. This basic principle applies as much to research with implications for domestic and international security as it does to research relevant to health, economic growth, social welfare and other aspects of public well-being. That mandate is fully respected by the Minerva Initiative program. The Russian government’s move against the Levada Center will most likely have a negative effect on social science, the scientific community and the society it serves.
Theodore P. Gerber is director of the Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia and professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has worked with the Levada Center on 20 survey projects since 1998, funded by a variety of U.S. government and private sources.
Jane Zavisca is associate dean for research and associate professor of sociology in the College of Social & Behavioral Sciences at the University of Arizona, and author of Housing the New Russia (Cornell University Press, 2012).