| A month after the country's leading independent pollster
warned that it was threatened by a state takeover, a dark cloud is hanging
Its director, leading sociologist Yury Levada, still does not know whether
he and his staff will be let go and, if they are, doubts that they will
be able to set up shop on their own.
Political analysts are equally glum about VTsIOM's future, and the plight
of the polling agency is raising some red flags in the West.
But the Property Ministry, which is overhauling the agency on behalf
of the government, is not budging. Breaking weeks of silence, the ministry
is now saying that the changes are part of a standard procedure to make
state entities more accountable and financially transparent.
"Levada has been aware of the upcoming reorganization since August
2002, when VTsIOM was included on the list of state entities slated for
privatization this year," ministry spokesman Alexander Parshukov
said in a recent telephone interview.
The ministry refused to discuss the matter for weeks, after Levada warned
at an Aug. 5 news conference that VTsIOM's independence was at stake.
"This independence that Levada is talking about is pure fiction,"
Parshukov said. "Levada is a civil servant who responds directly
to the labor minister. It's just so happened that [Labor Minister Alexander]
Pochinok hasn't been interfering in his affairs."
VTsIOM is a so-called GUP, a state-owned entity with the right to carry
out commercial activity, and, on paper, accountable to the Labor Ministry.
It now is being revamped into a joint-stock company with a new board of
directors, which is to meet for the first time soon. The board is comprised
of government officials and does not have anyone from the VTsIOM team
of researchers, including Levada.
Parshukov denied that the pollster is under attack for its surveys that
show dissatisfaction over the war in Chechnya is at all-time highs, as
some have suggested. He also rejected allegations that the government
wants to seize control of the agency in light of December's parliamentary
elections and the presidential vote next March.
Parshukov did say, however, that any possible sell-off of VTsIOM shares
would only take place after March 2004.
"There aren't any insane people in the government who would transfer
it [VTsIOM] into private hands ahead of the elections," he said.
Prominent scholars and political analysts have thrown their support
behind VTsIOM. A group of 30 French, Swiss and Belgian scholars who have
collaborated with VTsIOM in the past published an open letter in the Moskovskiye
Novosti weekly urging the government to preserve VTsIOM's integrity.
"It isn't up to us to judge whether it is proper for Russian authorities
to reorganize VTsIOM. However, we do have the right to maintain that by
abolishing VTsIOM in its present state, Russian authorities are dealing
a major blow not only to sociological research, by depriving Russian and
Western researchers of a unique instrument for studying contemporary Russian
society, but to democracy in general," the letter said.
Although concerned about VTsIOM's future, some of the letter's signatories
suggested that Levada and his team might be able to set up a new polling
"I guess that is what he is considering now and that it should
not be a problem to found a new center," said Alexis Berelovich,
a Russian studies professor with Paris-IV/Sorbonne University who has
worked with Levada on a number of research projects.
But Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center who amply
used VTsIOM statistics in her recent book "Putin's Russia,"
did not share his optimism.
"VTsIOM works to hold the panel of public opinion high and does
not allow others to manipulate public opinion," Shevtsova said.
She said investors could surely be found to back further sociological
research by the VTsIOM team, but this would not be enough.
"Unfortunately, any move is always hard, and the reputable brand
name will suffer and lose its initial value and respect in the process,"
"How will people know what is the real VTsIOM and what is not?"
She cautioned that VTsIOM might share the fate of Yevgeny Kiselyov's
team of journalists at NTV television. Those journalists left NTV after
state shareholders took over the channel in 2001 and found investors to
back them first at TV6 and then TVS. But in the end they found themselves
without jobs when the TVS's investors lost interest in bankrolling the
Levada, 72, avoided speculating about his team's future. This is not
the first time he has been faced with the prospect of losing his job.
In Soviet times he was ousted from his teaching job at Moscow State University
and the publication of his sociological work was banned.
Levada said in an interview that most of his staff probably would not
want to work under new management, but he expressed doubt that he would
be able to find the strength or the resources to set up a new polling
"We have nothing but our reputation," he said. "We have
bought everything you see here, but if we are forced to leave, we will
have to leave with nothing. We would have no chairs to sit on, no offices
and no computers. They all belong to the state."
VTsIOM, founded 15 years ago in the wake of perestroika, has not received
a ruble in government funding in 12 years. Its revenues come from outside
research orders -- usually from political parties and sometimes from Western
"We have never especially prospered, but whatever we make has always
been enough to pay salaries and office rent on time," Levada said.
VTsIOM employs a staff of 90 and rents several rooms in a crumbling
Soviet-era building of the Radio Institute in eastern Moscow. The sociologists
earn "several thousand rubles" per month, Levada said.
The Property Ministry said there are some 10,000 GUPs like VTsIOM, and
they all need to be turned into joint-stock companies to improve their
efficiency and financial transparency.
"We are fighting with the GUPs, and this fight is very tough,"
Parshukov said. "The directors of thousands of GUPs have acted the
same way that Levada is acting these days. However, he has the advantage
of publicly, representing it as a crackdown on democracy."
Parshukov would not give any timeframe for when the reorganization might
the original at
Why Is the All-Russia Public Opinion Research
Centre Being Broken Up? By Alexander Golov and Orkhan Jemal, Novaya Gazeta,
August 14, 2003