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Sorry to bother you Ahead of new Moscow protests, Russia’s authorities order polling designed to exaggerate support for a police crackdown

Source: Meduza
Kirill Kudryatsev / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

The Russian authorities have mobilized sociologists in the wake of mass demonstrations against Moscow city officials, and pollsters are now busy surveying the public’s attitudes towards elections, protests, and the response from the police. One poll released on August 2 by the government-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) immediately won attention from the country’s pro-Kremlin pundits, who promptly cited its results as proof that the public is against demonstrations and “unrest,” and supports Moscow officials’ decision not to register independent candidates for the upcoming City Duma race. Meduza examines the problems with VTsIOM’s polling and looks at some of the other survey work now underway in Russia.

VTsIOM’s polling claims that Muscovites and Russians generally support “strong police measures”

Protests have been ongoing in Moscow since mid-July, when local election officials refused to register dozens of independent candidates for September’s City Duma race. The most recent rally took place on July 27, and ended with a record number of arrests, followed by felony riot charges against several demonstrators.

On August 2, VTsIOM published the results of a survey about these events. According to the poll, election officials’ refusal to register independent candidates has “split Muscovites” into a majority who support the decision and a minority who demand the registration of all candidates. VTsIOM’s data also shows that 61 percent of Muscovites and 69 percent of all Russians support the city’s strong police response to unpermitted opposition protests.

VTsIOM polled Muscovites by telephone on July 29, recording the results of 800 adult respondents. The center conducted its national telephone poll a day later, surveying 1,600 people.

Pro-Kremlin pundits embraced these numbers immediately, citing the polling as incontrovertible evidence that Russians support Moscow’s harsh crackdown on opposition protesters. For example, Komsomolskaya Pravda columnist Alexander Kolts wrote on Telegram, “It feels like the police won’t bother standing on ceremony tomorrow [August 3]. Now it’s not just their job description but also the vox populi that’s on their side. It’s interesting that, according to VTsIOM’s polling, the strong police response has more support nationally than in Moscow. This gets at the question of the representativeness of the opposition, which considers itself Russia’s savior. Apparently nobody let the country in on this little secret. Smash the little Maidan retards, Russia seems to be saying.”

VTsIOM’s problematic polling

The question about rejected independent candidates

Here’s one of the questions VTsIOM pollsters asked respondents: “In order to participate in the Moscow City Duma elections, candidates must collect a certain number of endorsements from voters. After examining these signatures, the Moscow City Election Commission ruled that some of the signatures were invalid. Invalid signatures were identified in documents submitted by Gennady and Dmitry Gudkov, Ilya Yashin, Lyubov Sobol, and several other candidates. Some believe that the election commission should act in accordance with the law in this situation and refuse to register the candidates who have committed violations when collecting endorsements. Others believe that the election commission should register all candidates, despite these violations. Which point of view do you support?”

Respondents gave the following answers to this question:

  • The election commission should refuse to register candidates who committed violations — 54 percent
  • All candidates should be registered, despite any violations — 29 percent
  • Too difficult to answer — 17 percent

The problems with this question

Demonstrators are protesting in Moscow precisely because independent candidates, including Lyubov Sobol and Ilya Yashin, dispute the Election Commission’s decision to invalidate their endorsements. Candidates have presented overwhelming evidence that city officials invalidated signatures from real voters, providing testimony from these people, but in most cases the election commission has refused to listen.

Many signatures were invalidated because of inconsistencies with the Federal Migration Service’s database, due to election commission members’ own data-entry errors when recording voters’ passport information. Officials also used technicalities to reject candidates’ endorsements. For example, the election commission threw out any signatures endorsing Yabloko candidate Anastasia Bryukhanova when voters’ recorded passport numbers began with a zero.

Meanwhile, pro-government candidates managed smooth registrations without election officials invalidating too many of their signatures, despite the fact that some of these candidates didn’t even mount signature drives. For example, according to Presidential Human Rights Council member Yekaterina Vinokurova, Moscow City Duma Deputy Chairman Andrey Metelsky (a United Russia member running for re-election as an independent) could hardly have collected the necessary number of signatures, given that he never even reached out to voters in his precinct. 

The wording of VTsIOM’s question implies that Moscow election officials invalidated independent candidates’ signatures fairly, and that election commissions acted without bias or favoritism, which is a highly controversial assertion.

The question about Moscow’s police response

Here’s another question from VTsIOM’s survey: “On July 27, an unpermitted protest took place in Moscow. Do you agree or disagree that the authorities should act in accordance with the law in such situations, even if it means stern measures?” Sixty-one percent of Muscovites “mostly agreed” with this statement, while 69 percent of Russians nationwide said they agreed.

The problems with this question

VTsIOM pollsters never explained to respondents what they meant by “stern measures.” Many protesters on July 27 received serious injuries when the police dispersed the rally, requiring hospitalization in several cases. Police also attacked journalists reporting from on the ground at the demonstration. For example, does the arrest of designer Konstantin Konovalov fall within the law? He was forced into a police van two hours before the protest even started, and the arresting officers broke one of his legs. Later, despite the fact that Konovalov was arrested and then hospitalized (meaning he was physically incapable of attending the rally), officials have formally charged him with violating Russia’s civil statutes on public assemblies. VTsIOM’s question implies that the arrests and “stern measures” implemented in Moscow on July 27 were legal, but the reality is messy.

“VTsIOM is taking sides in the conflict,” says sociologist Grigory Yudin

Sociologist Grigory Yudin says VTsIOM’s questions are manipulative. “The key questions are formatted incorrectly,” he explains. “We’re dealing with a conflict where there’s a fight over interpretations. In these situations, it’s the researcher’s job to determine which interpretation appeals more to the respondent, not to impose one interpretation on them. VTsIOM believes Moscow’s election commissions, in accordance with the law, should refuse to register [the independent candidates], while the candidates believe, in accordance with the law, that they should be registered. In other words, VTsIOM is taking sides in the conflict. VTsIOM thinks operating in accordance with the law at a peaceful demonstration means “taking stern measures,” while the other side insists that these stern measures directly contradict the law and violate the Constitution. Once again, VTsIOM is taking sides.”

Other sociologists studying attitudes about protests in Moscow

There have been a few other polls related to attitudes about Moscow’s protests and upcoming City Duma elections. On July 31, the human rights project “Protest Apology” reported that Moscow residents were receiving telephone calls from the number +74992770738 by pollsters identifying themselves as representatives of something called the “Independent Research Company.” The survey included the following questions: “Are you aware of protests now taking place because of the refusal to register some of the candidates?” “How do you feel about such protests?” “Would you ever consider participating in such protests?”

One of these pollsters telephoned Mediazona correspondent Dmitry Shvets, who transcribed their conversation in a July 31 Facebook post. Speaking to the journalist, the caller was unable to say who ordered the survey, or who was employing him. (Meduza has obtained an audio recording of their phone call.) Whenever Shvets tried to get clarification, all the pollster could answer was “I’m just a call agent” and “I don’t have any additional information.”

Several Meduza readers also say they received phone calls on July 31 from the same number, from pollsters asking questions about Moscow’s elections and protests. One woman says her caller, like the person who telephoned Shvets, was unable to tell her who exactly was conducting the survey. (Meduza has an audio recording of this conversation, as well.) “It’s an independent poll [being carried out] by a sociological firm. I’m just a call agent. I don’t currently have the information you requested,” the caller said. When the woman asked how the pollster got her phone number, she was told that a computer program selected it at random.

The telephone number +74992770738 has more than 100 negative reviews on the “Neberitrubku” (Don’t Pick Up the Receiver) telephone database, where users from Moscow to Perm to Chuvashia complain about unsolicited calls from pollsters. The calls started at least two years ago, and the questions typically relate to the work of local state officials, and sometimes elections and participation in protests. Some people also say money disappeared from their accounts, after speaking to callers from this number. On August 1, Neberitrubku users started posting about a new poll related to protests from the same phone number. According to the online reviews, the callers were unable to say who was behind the survey. Meduza failed to get through to +74992770738 — all our calls were declined.

According to the mobile app “Getcontact” (which allows users to see how their number is logged on other users’ telephones), +74992770738 has almost 80 different “tags,” including “Transportation Department Poll,” “Moscow Transportation Poll,” and “Deputies Poll,” as well as “Fraudsters,” “Moscow Cardsharps Transportation,” “Don’t Answer,” and others in the same spirit.

The only business name among these dozens of tags is “Sis Corp,” which possibly refers to “CIS Corporation Ltd,” a business registered in Perm that regularly conducts polling for different state institutions. So far this year, CIS Corporation has signed government contracts worth more than 24 million rubles ($367,685), including deals with the State Duma and the Moscow city agency “Transport Operator.” CIS Corporation CEO Anna Fershtein refused to tell Meduza if her company is polling people about the protests in Moscow, citing a nondisclosure agreement. She also declined to say if the number +74992770738 belongs to her firm.

Journalist Dmitry Shvets says this telephone number is linked in Google search results to something called the “Independent Sociological Company.” On the “Bazanomerov” (Phone Database) website, one Internet user who reviewed +74992770738 in February 2018 says the pollster “reluctantly” told him that the survey was being carried out by the “Independent Sociological Company, NSK-Corporation.”

According to the “SPARK” database, “Independent Sociological Company Ltd.” was registered in Moscow. The organization’s director, Alexey Firsov, recently served as communications director at VTsIOM, before taking a similar role at Rosnano (a government-owned joint-stock company created to commercialize developments in nanotechnology). Ninety-nine percent of “NSK” belongs to the “Platform” social project planning center, whose director, Maria Makusheva, told Meduza that the center has conducted no polling related to Moscow’s protests. Meduza was unable to reach Alexey Firsov.

Asked about the waves of phone calls from the same telephone number, apparently from different companies, Makusheva said, “All leading research companies often use the same contractors and call centers. This means both we, VTsIOM, and FOM [the Public Opinion Foundation] can turn to the same professional call center. The phone number here doesn’t say anything. In the same way, any company can rent the same premises in a city to hold focus-group studies. It’s just a resource.” Makusheva added that pollsters are required to tell respondents who has ordered a particular survey: “There aren’t any ‘just call agents’ in polls conducted by professional companies, where the staff is always people with some training as interviewers. They understand the process in which they’re involved, and they’re given instructions that lay out their goals, the project’s objectives, and the client. All the centers that operate according to these standards — all the major national companies and most of the well-known regional outfits — are required to name the survey’s client, when telephoning respondents.”

Meduza readers also say they’ve received calls about elections and protests from at least one other telephone number: +74993009727. Unlike the calls from the first number, the pollsters using this second telephone line have told respondents who is behind their survey: the “FDF Group” marketing research agency. Calls to this number prompt a voicemail message telling callers that they’ve reached the FDF Group.

The companies that make up the FDF Group previously conducted public opinion research. In June and August 2014, just ahead of Moscow’s City Duma elections, “FDF-MI” Ltd. signed three contracts with the Moscow Northeastern District’s Prefecture worth a total of 9.6 million rubles ($147,975). The company “AMI Group FDF,” in turn, collaborated with the “NI and PI Moscow General Plan” state unitary enterprise in 2015, and conducted a poll to study attitudes about the transportation situation in the company town of Novoivanovskoye in the Odintsovsky District, outside Moscow.

FDF Group CEO Sergey Gnedkov confirms that his company conducted a field survey of protest sentiments in Moscow on July 31, 2019, but he says the firm has no ties to +74992770738 (the first telephone number cited above). Meduza showed Gnedkov some of the questions anonymous interviewers asked people over the phone, and he says the wording doesn’t match the scripts his company uses in surveys. (Gnedkov also agrees that VTsIOM’s recent survey questions were highly manipulative.) He guesses that there were multiple polls being carried out on July 31 about the same issue. Gnedkov declined to reveal his study’s client, purpose, timing, and other details, citing a nondisclosure agreement.

Story by Alexander Ibragimov and Andrey Serafimov, edited by Alexey Kovalev

Translation by Kevin Rothrock

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