Russia’s Justice Ministry labeled the only independent polling agency a “foreign agent” Tuesday, after its polls showed a dip in support for Putin’s ruling party ‘United Russia.’
The Justice Ministry justified its move in a statement saying “the major part of financial support the Levada Center has received is from the U.S., including the University of Wisconsin in Madison.”
The labeling comes just two weeks before major parliamentary elections in Russia. The persecution of the polling group “began after we have demonstrated a drop in popularity of the United Russia,” Lev Ghudkov, chairman of the polling group, told Russian media.
Ghudkov released a poll Thursday showing an 8 percent drop in popularity for United Russia. The Justice Ministry’s label came Tuesday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin heralded the “Foreign Agent” act in 2012, after widespread protests over the legitimacy of Russia’s elections in 2012. The act effectively silences civil society groups that receive funds from other countries. “With that kind of label, it will simply be impossible to hold public opinion polls,” Ghudkov continued.
Amendments added to the Foreign Agents Act in 2014 allow the Justice Ministry to forcibly label any nongovernmental organization at will. Once labeled, the ministry can target NGO leaders with heavy fines, and jail time.
Russia’s targeting of the Levada Center comes just two years after its prosecution of another election monitoring group, GOLOS. The NGO advocated for greater transparency in Russian elections, which the Justice Ministry decided was “political activity” akin to spying.
The NGO was nebulously labeled a foreign agent after receiving some foreign prize money it did not solicit. The justice ministry insisted the group met the criterion for foreign funding, despite the organizations immediate return of the prize money.
After GOLOS was labeled a ‘foreign agent’ it was levied with a massive fine, its leader was personally fined, and it was shutdown by the Justice Ministry for six months.
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