Vladimir Putin has based his claim to legitimacy on his high favorability ratings, the anchor of which has been the “independent” Levada Center, headed by the prominent Russian sociologist, Lev Gudkov. Among Levada’s claim to impartiality is its ties with foreign academic heavy weights from top universities and think tanks. The Kremlin has other polling organizations, such as VTSIOM, but they are viewed as doing the bidding of the Russian government. A Levada finding of high Putin ratings is worth its weight in gold to Putin and his regime. He has decided to throw this asset to the wolves. On September 6, Putin’s Ministry of Justice classified the Levada Center a “foreign agent,” citing its foreign ties with Columbia, George Washington, and Columbia Universities and with polling organizations such as Gallup, MORI, and Ipsos. Levada stands accused of working in the interests of these foreign entities. Although the “foreign agent” label does not automatically shut down Levada, the September 6 issue of Kommersant cites Gudkov as stating “the work of our organization has been in fact stopped.” The content of the article, however, has mysteriously disappeared, meaning that the Kremlin does not want this news circulating. Moscow speaks (Govorit Moskva) confirms that Levada is appealing the foreign-agent classification and has ceased its polling work. In shutting down Levada, Putin can no longer claim high ratings confirmed by respected independent pollsters. His favorability ratings form the core of his regime. Putin could pay a high price for this move, but he has decided the benefits outweigh the costs.
The timing of the shutting down of Levada is explained by the fact that the Russian Duma elections are two weeks off. In its latest release, Levada showed support for Putin’s United Russia party falling precipitously from 39 to 31 percent, while government polling agencies place support for United Russia between 41 and 45 percent. If Levada, on election eve, for example, were to find 20 percent support for United Russia but the official results show fifty percent, Putin could face a tinderbox.
Levada head Gudkov is widely known for his anti-regime remarks, but he was not shut down for them. In 2014, Gudkov called the Kremlin a “corrupt mafia-like” state. As late as July 2016, he characterized Putin’s state “as a closed authoritarian system in which power is based on power structures, oligarchs, state administrators.”