Levada Center as “Foreign Agent”: A Debate

May 13, 2013
Source: RFE/RL: The head of the Levada Center, Lev Gudkov

The independent pollster the Levada Center was recently designed a “foreign agent” under Russia’s new NGO Law. In this Kommersant article, a sociologist opposed to the designation debates a Duma Deputy who supports it. — Ed.

According to Valery Fedorov, the Director of the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (WCIOM), sociologists should not be subject to the NGO Law. Earlier the Prosecutor General’s Office declared the Levada Center a foreign agent. Leontiy Byzov, a senior researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Sociology, and Evgeni Fedorov, a State Duma deputy, discussed the issue with the host, Ksenia Turkova.

According to the prosecutors’ investigation results, since late last year the Yury Levada Analytical Center received almost 4 million roubles from abroad.  According to Lev Gudkov, the Director of the organization, that figure is totally made up.

Kommersant: Mr. Byzov, do you think opinion polls, including by the Levada Center, can be considered a form of political activity?

Leontiy Byzov: Of course, not. That is a common mistake – politics are confused with political science. Political science is a scientific discipline, when we’re talking about politics, we mean political activities. These are two completely separate things, and clear difference should be made between them.

KommersantBut can political science be politicized, if we can put it this way?

Leontiy Byzov:  Well, let’s have it straight. It can be politicized if we’re talking about really bad political scientists or sociologists. A good sociologist might have their own opinion, but that opinion never affects their research. Research must be impartial.

KommersantMr. Fedorov, do you agree?

Evgeni Fedorov:  When somebody commissions some research, and pays for it, they commission a particular type of research, and pose the questions in a particular way, which is important. I’m sure specialists will give honest answers to these questions, will do necessary research, however all this is important not in and of itself, but as an aggregate of a management machine, which is essentially some external management of the country.

What is important for us is not the fact that the prosecutors examined the activities of the pollsters, and audited their financial flows. For example the Golos association openly admits drafting laws, that are submitted to the Duma.

What is important is that the activities of 664 organizations with a total budget of $3 billion are aimed to steer some processes in the country. That is a great number of laws pass through them at some early stages, as well as certain aspects of human resource management.

Meanwhile the Levada Center, being a limited scale organization, is playing a rather important role. This is why Merkel and Obama resist its work so actively. They understand the meaning of it. What does it lead to? It leads to exploiting Russia even more. The decisions that are made are not in the best interest of Russian people.

Kommersant: Does that mean that the Levada Center activities are political by nature?

Evgeni Fedorov:  The work by the Levada Center is not necessarily political by nature. However being commissioned by some external parties, it plays an important role and complements political activities of the whole system that includes 20,000 political workers. This is a huge, gigantic system that manages the country, its strategy, and the Levada Center research is a large part of that system. Without it the system will not function effectively in terms of external management.

Kommersant: Do you think that somebody not only commissions that research but also asks Levada Center for a particular result?

Evgeni Fedorov: No. They commission research of a certain nature, they set the questions in a particular way, trying to find out what the public thinks not in general, but about certain things that matter for that external management of the country. That is that work is made to order. By the way the President’s Office, and the government are among those who commission research, and they do it for the same purposes – to make political decisions based on the results.

Kommersant: And who commissions research by the Levada Center?

Evgeni Fedorov: In this particular case the Prosecutor’s Office pointed to a foreign client. That means that there was a foreign client who was interested in particular results. Based on those results that foreign client will, for example, draft laws in Russia, and we will have to abide by those laws and keep wondering why we can’t get it right.

Kommersant: It’s terrible. Mr. Byzov, do you agree?

Leontiy Byzov:  No, I don’t agree with my colleague’s logic at all. Sociologists are responsible for results of their work, not for some external management network my colleague is talking about. The results of their professional activities should not depend on who commissioned their work – whether the President’s Office, a government of some foreign state, or a private investor.

A sociologist’s job is to get a professional, objective result. With very few exceptions I never had to deal with a situation where anybody would try to dictate what questions to ask, and what results to pursue. The questions are formulated by sociologists themselves, in general based on their expertise and competence. Of course, there could be different ways to interpret results. However, in search of truth WCIOM might interpret results in one way, and the Levada Center in some other way. It’s actually very good that we have different centers and different clients. Because when we evaluate all the information from all the centers we are able to get an idea what is really going on in the country.

Kommersant: Is it possible to manipulate by using certain questions? The journalists also decide what questions to ask. For example, questions asked by journalists from the Dozhd TV channel could be different from those by the Channel One.

Leontiy Byzov:  I think it’s a totally normal situation. By asking the same questions in different ways you can reflect the objective reality from slightly different angles. Our task is to look at the results, to analyze, interpret and try to understand what the reality is.

Kommersant: Mr. Fedorov, do you agree that when you have a lot of data you can compare and analyze them and form your own opinion?

Evgeni Fedorov: I would like to point out that when any client, including a foreign one, places an order for anything, for example, asking a contractor to make some repairs, or asking a sociologist to study a certain issue, the order itself contains a set of deliverables, including in terms of questions. Based on that order a professional formulates those questions and conducts studies.

What is important is not an order per se. That order is important within a context of the management system, of external management of the country. That is based on this order the center formulates the questions in such a way, that later they could be used by other organizations pursuing other goals and using other methods. And those organizations might be also fulfilling an order from abroad. This is how that system of 644 organizations appeared. That is a aggregate system of external management, in which many participants play their minor and sometimes totally harmless roles. However in aggregate that’s what it is – external management, that makes life of Russian citizens worse.