Predetermined Opinion Polls

Many Western observers of Russia tend to legitimize the Putin administration by pointing to the president’s decidedly high approval rating. However, as we have frequently pointed out, the results of many opinion polls are controlled, in one way or another, by the Kremlin. The New Times magazine has validated these suspicions. The in-depth article investigates VCIOM (the Russian Public Opinion Research Center), the largest polling body in the Russian Federation. The Center is completely owned by the government, and members of the president’s administration sit on the board of directors. It appears that they have frequently skewed poll results in favor of the authorities.

The New Times writes that the deputy of the Directorate of Domestic Policy, Aleksei Chesnakov, is constantly overseeing the organization’s work. According to a source inside VCIOM, Chesnakov regularly meets with the center’s director, Valeriy Fedorov. They screen every question before it goes out to weekly all-Russian public opinion polls. Before official publication, the poll’s results are forwarded to the presidential administration for confirmation.

During one questionnaire at the end of September, Chesnakov personally insisted on the inclusion of pointed questions about the “Just Russia” political party. The questions asked the participants to express their opinion on the inclusion of individuals with a criminal record, as well as billionaires, in the party’s candidate list to the State Duma. Similarly loaded questions were included asking participants to rate the performance of Mikhail Kasyanov, a former prime minister and opposition candidate. The answers included: “He is sponsored and supported by external forces (his retinue, the West, the oligarchs),” “He is thirsty for power,” and “He has selfish aims of personal enrichment and privilege.”

Leading questions in research of public opinion are absolutely unacceptable. This is either deception or political manipulation, but it has no relation to sociology,” commented Lev Gudkov, the director of Russia’s independent polling organization, the Levada Center.

The head of VCIOM’s Socio-political analysis department, Leontiy Byzov, echoed similar sentiments on another improper polling method:

It can’t be tolerated that there are two options for the answer—one ‘for everything good’ and the other ‘for everything bad.’ This always pushes the respondent towards a necessary answer.

Meanwhile, VCIOM’s questions on the “Union of Right Forces” political party use this exact technique. The answers read: A.“The Union of Right (SPS) forces is composed of real democrats, reformers stepping out for freedom, against bureaucracy and corruption.” B. “SPS is a party of oligarchs and corrupt officials, brothers-in-arms of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, who are conducting an anti-patriotic, pro-American policy.”

According to the New Times, the Center also seems to be involved in a number of shady tax schemes. Many of their profits from polling and market research are diverted into bank accounts in the British Virgin Islands, as well as Cyprus. In Russia, VCIOM’s tax records are split between a confusing mess of departments and bureacracy. One financial analyst, on grounds of anonymity, said that “Their intentions are clear: tax evasion and the withdrawal of capital abroad. But why is this necessary for a governmental organization?

The New Times proposes that VCIOM’s loyalty to the administration is rewarded with a blind eye to corruption. The article quotes an anonymous high-level employee of the organization:

We are paid for loyalty with the opportunity to steal. They allow us to sit on certain financial streams, without any controls. This is a classic example of bureaucratic rents: using government enterprise to extract revenue into the pockets of officials…On the whole, I believe that the present VCIOM is not a research organization. It is not made for that. It is a part of the propaganda machine.

VCIOM was formed in December 1987, as under Mikhail Gorbachev’s program of glasnost. In 1998, the center was turned into a “unitary enterprise,” which meant that while it was owned by the government, all funding and operations were done independently. The next year, the Center was granted the status of a research institution. In 2003, VCIOM was transformed into a public company with 100 percent ownership by the government. The board of directors was completely replaced, and nearly all of the Center’s sociologists resigned.