By Elizabeth Piper
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's only independent pollster could be forced to register as a foreign agent under a law which President Vladimir Putin's critics say is designed to tighten controls on groups that do not toe the official line.
If Russian media reports are confirmed, the Levada Center would be the latest independent group affected by a law which critics say condemns groups that work with foreign partners for the benefit of the Russian people as traitors and spies.
Some critics saw the possibility of Levada joining human rights groups on the list of "foreign agents" as evidence that Putin is clamping down on civil rights even while U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's is in Moscow for talks.
"Putin's latest crackdown as #Kerry arrives: squeezing 1st-rate independent Levada polling center as 'foreign agent'," Strobe Talbott, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state, said on Twitter shortly before Kerry met Putin in the Kremlin.
The Levada Center has long tracked the good times as well as the bad for Putin in opinion polls. In January, it said his approval rating had hit a 12-year low of 62 percent, but it has also documented a rise in his popularity in subsequent months.
In a poll released on Monday, it had more bad news for Putin, showing 52 percent of Russians believe the people in power in Russia are more concerned with their personal material interests than the country's problems.
A report by the pro-Putin newspaper Izvestia on Tuesday suggested the Kremlin's patience may be wearing thin with the only big polling group that does not have state backing.
It quoted a source in the state prosecutor's office as saying Levada had received 3.9 million roubles ($125,400) between December 26, 2012 and March 24 this year from Italy, the United States, Britain, Poland and South Korea.
The state prosecutor's office declined to comment and Levada said it had yet to receive an official order to register as a foreign agent as required by the new law.
LEVADA CHIEF FIGHTS BACK
But Levada's director, Lev Gudkov, said authorities had started looking into Levada in mid-April, when it published a poll saying a majority of Russians agreed with the opposition's depiction of Putin's ruling party as "swindlers and thieves".
"We will never declare that we are foreign agents," Gudkov said of a group which split from the state-owned VTsIOM polling group in 2003 and has jealously guarded its independence since.
Critics say the new law, introduced last year after tens of thousands of people took to the streets against Putin, is a throwback to Soviet days and was a knee-jerk response to the protests which the Kremlin said were funded by the West.
They describe it as part of broader moves to smother dissent in Putin's six-year third term as president.
Putin denies the law is politically motivated and says all it entails is some "routine" financial checks. He says tighter controls of NGOs are needed to stop foreign meddling in Russian affairs and attempts to foment unrest.
But the West has expressed concerns about it, with the U.S. State Department saying in March that it may be akin to a 'witch hunt'. Washington led other Western countries at the United Nations last month that demanded it be rescinded.
Last month, a Moscow court fined independent vote monitoring group Golos, which reported on alleged fraud in recent parliamentary and presidential elections, for failing to register as a foreign agent.
Several of Russia's most prominent human and civil rights groups including its oldest, Memorial, have promised to defy the legislation, saying they are not foreign agents and work to help Russia and its people.
Apart from Levada, there are only a handful of pollsters in Russia. Another group, FOM, says it is independent but much of its polling is state-funded and its clients include the presidential administration and the ruling United Russia party. ($1 = 31.1045 Russian roubles)
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Writing by Elizabeth Piper and Timothy Heritage; Editing by Jon Hemming)