I will be going on a “working vacation” this Sunday, so I’m publishing my weekly contribution to VoR/US-Russia experts panel early:
Okay, let’s get one thing clear from the get go: The Russian law requiring NGOs to declare themselves “foreign agents” if they engage in political activities and receive financing from abroad, is not illegitimate. At least, not unless you also consider the US’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) – which does practically the same thing – to be also illegitimate.
Which is just fine, mind you! But only as a universal value judgment, and not as a tool to selectively beat Russia over the head with.
Or you can shrug it off as paranoia. But bear in mind that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to topple you. The color revolutions were in significant part funded from abroad, and there has recently appeared witness testimony (backed up by video footage) of Udaltsov, one of the most prominent leaders of the street opposition, receiving money from a Georgian politician. So there is a case to be made that a certain amount of paranoia is necessary to preserve Russia’s sovereign democracy.
As such, a foreign agents law is not a bad idea per se, at least assuming it is applied rigorously but fairly. That may be too much to expect of Russians, though.
Problem is that said paranoia, while healthy in modest doses, may end up impinging on the “democracy” part of sovereign democracy. While labeling a crane reserve as a foreign agent might be more farce than substance (if so then what would that make the “alpha crane,” that is, Putin? – as the Runet jibes go), the same cannot be said of the pressure applied to the Levada Center.
Foreign financing only accounts for 1.5-3% of its total, according to its director, Lev Gudkov. Furthermore, he argues, the political and sociological research that Levada does is not politics, period. Certainly that would appear to be the case in the US, where it is virtually impossible to imagine the Department of Justice going after PEW, Gallup, or Rasmussen if they happened to take a few contacts for foreigners.
So while the laws might be similar on paper, the Investigative Committee is taking a much, much wider interpretation of what falls under the rubric of politics. And I would say that this is not only unjust but ultimately, stupid.
Levada does not fudge its results. They typically fall in line exactly with those of FOM and VCIOM, the two state-owned pollsters – including on the most politically significant indicator, Putin’s approval rating, which was an entirely respectable 64% as of this May. And while Levada does have an undeniably anti-Putin editorial slant, this is arguably all the better – from the Kremlin’s perspective – since it makes it seem to be “independent” and hence reliable in the West. FOM and VCIOM, as state-owned entities, would never be able to muster the same degree of credibility no matter the integrity with which they conduct their surveys.
From the meaningless police confiscations of Nemtsov’s “white papers” (which are only ever read on the Internet) to the harassment that frightened the economist Sergey Guriev into exile in Paris, petty authoritarianism on the part of lower level police and investigators is one of the most reliable manufactories of the ammunition that the “anti-Russian lobby” in the West uses to take potshots at Putin.