Baku, January 9 – The All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), Moscow’s largest survey firm, has been corruptly transformed from an independent polling firm into a part of the Kremlin’s propaganda machine, according to Natalia Morar, the New Times journalist who was denied re-entry to Russia last month.
In a carefully documented story posted online yesterday entitled “Payment for Loyalty,” Morar describes how the Presidential Administration has insisted on structuring surveys to get the results it wants and then rewarded VTsIOM leaders by allowing them to privatize state property, avoid paying taxes and send the profits to offshore banks.
This corrupt exchange, Morar says, has been especially important during this year of elections because the Kremlin needs the right answers in order to sway public opinion and votes and can count on the fact that many people will assume that VTsIOM’s reports are accurate (http://newtimes.ru/news/2008-01-08/2008-01-08-6/).
According to Morar, Aleksei Chesnakov, the deputy chief of section of the Presidential Administration responsible for domestic politics, carefully keeps track of what polls VTsIOM plans to do and meets frequently with VTsIOM director Valeriy Fedorov to review questions, answers, and presentation.
“Every Friday,” Morar reports, officials in the Presidential Administration go over and then approve the press releases that VTsIOM has scheduled to release in the following week to ensure that these will be on message. But the Kremlin’s involvement at VTsIOM is far deeper than that, the investigative says.
Sometimes, she says, its officials demand the inclusion or deletion of particular questions. But most often they limit themselves to requiring that the questions and answers be written in a way that leads respondents to give the answers that the Kremlin needs.
The use of leading questions in public opinion research is “absolutely impermissible,” Lev Gudkov, the head of the Levada Center polling company. “It is either cheating or political technology, but it does not have any relationship to sociology whatsoever.” At the very least, “it is not scientific.”
At least some working-level people at VTsIOM feel the same way. Leontiy Byzov, the head of social-political analysis there, told Morar that using leading questions and leading answers is simply a concealed way of advancing particular ideas and thus nothing more than propaganda.
For their loyalty, the top people in VTsIOM have been well-rewarded, Morar continues, highlighting just how important their distorted picture of Russian public opinion is for President Vladimir Putin and his Kremlin advisors in their effort to strengthen their grip on power.
Not only have they been able to effectively privatize what is a state company – indeed, Kremlin officials are on its board – but VTsIOM leaders have been able to avoid paying the taxes they owe by means of a series of shadow companies and to send their profits to offshore accounts in the British Virgin Islands and Cyprus.
Morar shared documentation on this with financial experts who confirmed her judgment that this was more than simply sharp business practice. Given that VTsIOM is still nominally a state enterprise, one expert said, such actions are too risky -- unless those involved enjoy protection at the highest levels.
But perhaps the most damning and certainly the most immediately accessible indication of what is going on are the words of a highly placed VTsIOM employee who not surprisingly insisted on anonymity.
He told Morar that “they [in the Kremlin] are paying us for loyalty by giving us the opportunity to steal. They permit us to use certain financial flows and they do not control what we do with them. This is a classical example of bureaucratic rent: the use of a state enterprise for the extraction of incomes going into the pockets of bureaucrats.”
Indeed, he said, “they permit us to work only as long as we fulfill all [their] conditions. But if we say something somewhere beyond what is wanted, they will immediately dispense with us. In general,” the source added, “VTsIOM in its current form is not a research organization … It is part of the [Kremlin’s] propaganda machine.”
For all those who remember the extraordinarily positive role VTsIOM played in the past, Morar suggests, it is truly tragic that this institution has been so thoroughly corrupted, even if as yet many people do not view its findings as any more unreliable than those of other polling organizations.
Established in December 1987, VTsIOM played a key role in the creation of modern polling in the late Soviet and early post-Soviet period. In 1998, it was transformed into a unitary state enterprise, and the following year, it was given the status of a scientific institution.
But in 2003, VTsIOM was converted into an open stock company entirely capitalized by the state. That step led to the departure of Yuri Levada and the other top sociologists who had worked there up to that point and to the installation of Fedorov, the director who now does the Kremlin’s bidding.