The Picture Is Going to Get Prettier
September 6, 2016
The latest attack on the Levada Center (this past Monday, the organization was labeled a “foreign agent”) provoked a justified outcry from people in various parts of the ideological spectrum, from the center’s friends competitors, and opponents. The formal basis of the attack was the insane law that punishes people and organizations for something that should be rewarded. If Russia wants to be strong in academic research, then here were researchers who collaborated with serious foreign partners. (The University of Wisconsin, with whom the Levada Center had been working, has traditionally been a powerhouse in sociology.) Worse, the law construes “political activity” as something unsavory right at a time when Russia really needs to awaken an interest in politics, and any NGO willing to study the dynamics of political life in Russia deserves all the encouragement it can get.
The Russian Ministry of Justice can paralyze the operations of one of the country’s three major public opinion polling factories one and half weeks before national and regional parliamentary elections on September 18. In this case, the elections will be held with a newly configured polling industry, which has not changed for a long time. Putting our emotions aside, however, the assault on the Levada Center seems unexpected. For the past decade, the organization has objectively worked to maintain the current regime’s legitimacy.
The public opinion research field, a field once populated by many players, was purged by the Kremlin ten years ago, leaving only three companies standing. Two of them, FOM (Public Opinion Foundation) and VTsIOM (Russian Public Opinion Research Center) are substantially affiliated with the Kremlin, since they are wholly dependent on the commissions they regularly receive from the presidential administration and other government agencies. The Levada Center, on the contrary, has been financed independently of the Kremlin, and the liberal views of its senior staff have put the company almost in political opposition to the current regime. Yet the outcomes of the Levada Center’s polls have rarely diverged from the data published by its colleagues and competitors. The numbers adduced by all three pollsters have usually generated a sense of broad or overwhelming support for everything the authorities do, however aggressive and irrational it sometimes might appear.
Praise from the enemy is worth twice as much, especially if it is voiced publicly. Vladimir Putin has confessed on several occasions that polls mean a lot to them, and when the Levada Center records public support for him, this is proof the support is undeniable. Look, even our opponents are forced to admit the people are behind us, the regime’s supporters say time and again. These same people sincerely believe research results depend on who pays for the research.
Research studies, however, are much more complicated, and the results of Levada Center’s polls have had nothing to do with the political stance of its executives. Instead, they are stipulated by the way polls are conducted. In daily life, Russians show little interest in politics, so if you deluge them with a wave of news reports about some issue of little importance to them, such as relations with Turkey, and then ask them the next day whether we should be afraid of Turkey, they will respond in good faith based on the information they got the day before. With few exceptions, the Levada Center has humbly tackled the political agenda set by television, and asked the same questions as the other pollsters, questions focused on this agenda, predictably garnering nearly the same outcomes as the other pollsters. However, the center’s alleged oppositional status made the answers more important for the authorities and, at the same time, indirectly increased the credibility of the other companies. The depressive antidemocratic discourse about the stupid, aggressive common people with which the middle classes have been spooking each other nationwide has largely been the product of the Levada Center’s poll numbers, even if the outcome was unintentional.
You need a good reason to shoot the goose that has been laying golden eggs. What compelled the authorities to break off a piece of the rigging propping up its legitimacy? I should explain right off the bat how the Levada Center does actually differ from the other two major Russian pollsters. The difference has nothing to do with honesty or professionalism. The myth that one group of sociologists does honest work, while the two others fake the numbers is not even worth discussing seriously, and yet they all get the same results.
What matters much more is the fact that the Levada Center does not get commissions from the Kremlin. The Kremlin cannot tell it what questions to ask and what results to make public. We should not forget the poll results reported in the Russian media are only the poll results the client has allowed them to publish. The client can impose a temporary or permanent veto on publication of the results. The media’s picture of public opinion thus passes through two powerful filters nowadays. First, the client imposes on the polling organizations the subjects for which he is willing to pay, and then he decides what information he would like to make available to the public. The Kremlin can easily ban publishing results that shatter the image of monolithic public support for its decisions, and it has often done this. It has no such power over the Levada Center, although in recent times it has not needed it, since the company has not produced polling data that would put the Kremlin in a vulnerable position.
Polling data has been long the main fodder from which Russians shape their notions about the balance of power at election time and decide how to vote. The numbers act like a tranquilizer, persuading voters not to waste time and energy by getting involved in elections whose outcome is clear in any case. Simultaneously, they send a signal up and down the power vertical about how much “slack” needs to be made up at the local voting precincts. The main thing is not diverge to too radically from the polls. If the Kremlin has had to break with this way of doing things on the eve of the elections, it means the independent player had become too dangerous. The mirror reflected something that forced the Kremlin to throw a stone at it.
If the Levada Center is forced to suspend operations, the credibility of poll numbers will drop, and the client will increase pressure on the remaining players. We will have to treat the polling numbers we see before and after the elections with a bigger grain of salt. If before, the public was shown only the pretty half of the picture, while the ugly was hidden from it, now it will see even less of the picture.
Greg Yudin is a research fellow and lecturer at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. Translated by the Russian Reader