MOSCOW — Russia’s Justice Ministry on Monday declared the Levada Center, the most influential independent polling organization in Russia, a foreign agent just two weeks before parliamentary elections.
Foreign agents in Russia are nongovernmental organizations that receive funds from abroad and engage in “political activity,” a definition that critics say is intentionally vague. The Levada Center had been targeted by conservative Russian politicians, who claimed that the organization was secretly carrying out polling work for the Pentagon and demanded an investigation.
The Levada Center had recently reported that support for United Russia, Russia’s ruling party, had fallen to 50 percent, indicating dissatisfaction over an economy suffering because of low oil prices.
The organization’s analysts regularly express liberal views that do not jibe with the opinions of government officials. At the same time, Levada Center pollsters had reported the same, high favorability ratings for President Vladimir Putin as pollsters more closely aligned with the Kremlin.
The ‘foreign agent’ law was enacted after street protests in 2012 over parliamentary elections that many criticized as fraudulent. Other groups that monitor elections, such as the organization Golos, also have been targeted by that law.
The Justice Ministry began a spot-check of the Levada Center after its report on United Russia, Lev Gudkov, the organization’s head, told the Russian television channel Dozhd in an interview on Monday evening.
“It’s a very bad thing for us, if they indeed have declared us [a foreign agent] and don’t reverse this decision, it means the minimizing and end of our activities,” Gudkov said. “Because with that kind of label, it will simply be impossible to hold public opinion polls.”