On September 5, 2016, Russia’s Ministry of Justice declared that the Levada Center, a leading independent polling and research center, would be required to register on Russia’s foreign agent list, which includes NGOs engaged in “political activities” that receive foreign funding. The decision, which was later appealed, requires the center to identify itself as a “foreign agent” in public materials.
The Levada Center, founded in 2003 by prominent Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, is one of the primary independent sociological research institutions in Russia, with a focus on political and electoral polling. On July 11, 2016, Anti-Maidan (AM), a state-sponsored NGO, reportedly sent a request to the Ministry of Justice, demanding that it register Levada Center to Russia’s foreign agent list, which was created in 2012 to monitor and make public the activities of NGOs that conduct “political” activities and receive foreign funding. AM alleged that the center had received financial support from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the US Government, including a $115,000 grant from the US Defense Department to conduct a sociological survey. The Ministry reportedly opened an investigation shortly thereafter and, on September 5, 2016, ordered that the center be registered as a foreign agent.
On September 16, Levada Center Director Led Gukov announced that the center would appeal the decision. The center has argued that it does not conduct “political activity” and media sources suggest that the decision was in retaliation for recent polling by the center, which showed low support for the ruling United Russia party just weeks ahead of parliamentary elections. The center reportedly refused to register as a foreign agent following the initial ruling, and on October 26 was ordered to pay a 300,000 ruble fine (roughly US $4,800) for failure to comply with the law. On November 18, a Moscow court upheld the Ministry of Justice’s decision to register the group as a foreign agent. About two months later, on January 13, 2017, the center filed an application before the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) “over alleged violation of the Center’s right to freedom of assembly and association as well as discrimination on grounds of sphere of activity (Articles 11 and 14 of the European Convention of Human Rights respectively).”
As of this report, the Levada Center remains operational, but is concerned that the foreign agent label has significantly damaged the legitimacy of its research and thus makes their future uncertain. The status of the application before the ECtHR is unknown.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about apparent retaliation against an independent research center in response to research results and collaboration with and support from foreign entities. State authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with the peaceful exercise of the rights to academic freedom and freedom of association, so long as those activities are undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Actions aimed at limiting research and collaboration harm academic freedom and undermine society generally.