By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's leading polling group said on Tuesday it would fight to keep operating despite pressure to register as a "foreign agent" under what it calls a campaign by President Vladimir Putin to silence independent voices.
Levada Center, Russia's only independent pollster, fears closure if it does not comply with a law obliging non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are involved in political work and funded from abroad to assume a label many Russians see as pejorative.
But Levada director Lev Gudkov said the group would try to hold out, despite warning by state prosecutors that they could take it to court if it fails to register as a foreign agent.
"We will continue our activity, although we are in a very difficult position," Gudkov said by telephone after a meeting at Levada's Moscow office to discuss how to deal with the threat.
"This Sword of Damocles will always hang over us," he said.
Gudkov said the agency would stop accepting foreign grants for now but would "never" register as a foreign agent, a term Kremlin critics say was chosen to evoke Cold War espionage and to suggest to Russians that the groups are enemies of the state.
"It is out of the question," Gudkov said.
Putin, who has often accused the West of political meddling during 13 years in power, signed the "foreign agent" law last year after protests he accused the United States of encouraging.
Many NGOs have refused to register despite inspections by the authorities which have prompted criticism from the European Union and the United States, which said it feared a "witch hunt".
"I do not see this as repression against our organization. I see it as a general campaign that the Kremlin - or Putin, if you like - has launched against civil society," Gudkov said.
"A totally new period has begun in Russia: The suppression of all independent organizations by the Kremlin," he said.
TRACKING PUTIN'S UPS AND DOWNS
At the same time, he said Levada was sure to face further trouble because of its role recording changes in public attitudes towards Putin and the institutions he relies upon for support, including the ruling United Russia party.
"In the conditions of falling support for Putin and the whole political system, the discrediting of United Russia, the decrease in Putin's authority, the lack of desire to vote for him in the next election, fatigue with Putin - of course the pressure on us, as an independent center that conveys such data, will grow stronger," Gudkov said.
Levada Center, which split from the state-owned pollster VTsIOM in 2003, has tracked the ups and downs Putin has experienced in opinion polls. In January, it said his approval rating had hit a 12-year low of 62 percent.
In April, it said 51 percent of Russians definitely or probably agreed that United Russia was the "party of swindlers and thieves", a label made popular by opposition leader Alexei Navalny and frequently invoked at protests and on the Internet.
Putin, who returned to the presidency a year ago after four years as prime minister, has called the inspections "routine" and said Russia needs to know where NGOs are getting their money. He has not commented specifically on Levada Center.
Grants that Levada received in the past three years from foreign groups including the Open Society Foundations and the U.S.-based Ford Foundation and MacArthur Foundation accounted for about 3 percent of its budget, Gudkov said.
But regardless of whether the state takes Levada to court, he said the pollster could lose clients whose payments for services such as market research are its life blood because of the potential stigma of being labeled a "foreign agent".
"They face a choice - to continue to work with us or not. And for us that is the most serious problem because we do not have other sources of financing," he said.
Gudkov said that while everyday poll respondents are unfazed, groups of bureaucrats and university employees that Levada has used for research on issues such as science and education "already afraid and are refusing to work with us".
That, he suspects, is exactly what Putin wants.
"What is happening is the unstated suppression of independent research organizations and civil society," he said. "The Kremlin does not want to directly outlaw or close such organizations, so as not to make them martyrs, but to suffocate them with purely economic and organizational methods."
(Editing by Timothy Heritage and Michael Roddy)