Russia’s only independent pollster has been blocked ahead of this year’s presidential election

Forgone conclusion.
Forgone conclusion.
Image: AP Photo/Yuri Kadobnov/Pool
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The Levada Center has long served as a crucial member of Russian civil society. The pollster has published the country’s only independent surveys, since it split from state-run VTsIOM in 2003, providing unique insights into Russians’ views about politics, economics, culture, and much else besides.

Now, it has become another casualty of the country’s 2012 “foreign agents” law, which the Kremlin uses to crack down on organizations that get funding from outside Russia. Having been designated a “foreign agent” in 2016, Levada announced this week that it won’t publish political polls in the run-up to the presidential election on March 18 for fear that authorities might shut it down for falling foul of the law. That means that as the country enters an election cycle where president Vladimir Putin’s victory is certain, we won’t have any trustworthy data to give us a sense of how voters feel about the situation.

Why does that matter if the election is a foregone conclusion? Political opinions in Russia are far more nuanced than just looking at Putin’s sky-high approval rating. Ever since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin’s approval rating has soared, as Levada’s polls show.

However, dig a little deeper and you see the Crimea sugar-high is wearing off, with prime minister Dmitry Medvedev and the government both netting negative approval scores by the end of last year. In other words, Russians are much less happy with their government than the support for Putin implies.

As a result, there is little to excite Russian voters about the upcoming election. The campaign cycle has kicked off with news that the economy has fallen back into recession after a fleeting recovery from the longest contraction in recent history. But disgruntled voters won’t find any candidates who attack Putin’s economic record among the Kremlin-vetted candidates allowed on the ballot.

So, the real measure analysts care about is how many people bother to vote. In other words, is the support for Putin active or passive? The question has become even more salient this year, with Alexey Navalny, an anti-corruption blogger and the country’s most prominent opposition figure, banned from running and calling for a general boycott of the vote.  

As it happens, this is where polls about voting intentions by Levada and the main state pollster, VTsIOM, get vastly different results:

With turnout typically inflated by ballot box-stuffing and other fraudulent measures, the lack of a baseline prediction provided by independent polls will hamper any hope of using Russia’s upcoming election as a reliable measure of public opinion.