Russia's Justice Ministry has labelled the country's most esteemed independent pollster, Levada Center, as a foreign agent, the Interfax news agency reported Monday.
A non-governmental organization (NGO) is given the label when it accepts money from a foreign government and engages in political activity, according to Russia's 2012 law on foreign agents.
This not only jeopardizes the public's trust in the pollster, it also threatens the organization with fines and even closure.
The Justice Ministry said it discovered the need to label Levada Center a foreign agent during a snap check initiated by a protest movement called Anti-Maidan, which has adamantly opposed Western backing of Ukraine.
Levada Center's deputy directory Alexei Grazhdankin told Interfax that he hoped his organization could rid itself of the label in the near future.
"We will reduce our number of contracts with foreign clients in the hope that this status will be removed," Grazhdankin said.
The US State Department said it was "deeply troubled" by the designation, adding that Levada is respected "for the rigor and quality of its work."
Polling is an important tool in any country that seeks to live by the democratic standards of openness, accountability in government and freedom of scientific inquiry, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
"These are principles Russia should seek to promote, we believe, and not silence," he said.
Russia has now designated 141 organizations as foreign agents, including non-governmental and business associations working to protect the environment, fight the spread of HIV and promote transparency, good governance and freedom of expression, Toner said.
Levada Center was formed in the early 2000s by researchers who had left the country's largest state pollster, the Russian Public Opinion Research Center.