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Takeover of Polling Firm Causes a Stir

Some see the move as the Kremlin's latest attempt to quiet opposing voices in Russia's run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections.

August 23, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Not long ago, as the upcoming national election campaign got underway, the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion put out some polling data.

Only 11% of the voters, the nation's most respected polling agency found, thought that President Vladimir V. Putin represented the interests of "all Russian people." The opposition Communist Party fared much better: Nearly 40% of those polled said it was on the side of ordinary citizens.

It got worse for the government. The data also indicated that the war in the republic of Chechnya -- which Putin has made a cornerstone of his presidency -- was supported by less than a third of the population.

What to do with such compelling evidence that the voters and the government are not exactly in lock-step? In this case, the government has moved to take over the polling company.

This month, the Labor Ministry informed Yuri A. Levada, widely considered Russia's top sociologist, that it was replacing the leadership of his independent polling firm with a board appointed from government ministries and the presidential administration. Levada and his deputies, it said, would not be part of the new management.

Now the 72-year-old academic, who became famous as a dissident in the 1960s, finds himself resorting to "Snow White," not science, when he tries to explain what happened.

"It is quite natural. The situation in this country is not very good," Levada said in an interview this week. "The ruler ought to know this, and use this in his work. But there are many rulers who like only to have a mirror. And as in a fairy tale out of folklore, it is easier to break the mirror than change the policies."

In itself, the takeover of a single polling firm -- at least 50 operate in Russia -- would not ring alarm bells. But the action against the All-Russia Center is seen by some as the latest in a series of measures the Kremlin has taken to quiet opposing voices in the run-up to parliamentary elections in December and presidential balloting in March.

In June, the government took over the country's last remaining independent television channel, TVS, and turned it into an all-sports network. The previous year, TV6, a channel critical of the government, was liquidated by an order of the Russian high court, and in 2001, the state-controlled gas monopoly Gazprom took over independent NTV.

This summer, prosecutors launched a criminal investigation into the huge private oil company, Yukos, after Chief Executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky gave money to two political parties vying against Putin's United Russia for control of the lower house of parliament.

"This is a predictable and logical development of a regime which from the very beginning defined itself as a regime which would bear no alternative," Dmitri Furman, senior analyst at the Institute of Europe, said of the takeover of the polling firm. "Their goal is to establish a strong power which can control as much as possible ... mass media, business policies and, finally, opinion polls and sociology."

Government officials have said the new board of directors is similar to joint-stock structures being established in thousands of agencies to make them more accountable. All-Russia, though technically a government agency, receives no public funding, operating with fees paid by corporate clients throughout Russia, as well as Europe and Asia.

Levada said he approached various officials about rumors that his agency was in trouble. "No problems," they told him. "And later, in a whisper, they would say, 'We have been ordered to cut off your head.' "

Levada's work as a sociologist closely parallels the course of academic freedom in the former Soviet Union. In the 1960s, when sociologists were not permitted to ask questions about people's attitudes toward private property, religion or the Communist Party, Levada raised hackles by criticizing the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia.

He was ousted from his post at Moscow State University, and publication of his work was banned. But 18 years later, with perestroika in bloom, the All-Soviet Center for the Study of Public Opinion opened. The pollster actually has had good news for Putin in recent months. Despite a wave of terrorist attacks and investor fears over the Yukos affair, the president's popularity ratings are at a robust 74%.

Other pollsters in Moscow say they haven't been troubled with interference so far.

"There is not a trace of politics about this conflict ... and there is every sign to believe that the restructuring is just a routine thing," said Yelena I. Bashkirova, president of the Russian Public Opinion and Market Research Service, which conducts social, political and marketing research.

"It is not really clear how the results of opinion polls could influence the political situation in the country," she said.

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