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Levada Leaves VTsIOM for VTsIOM-A

Ending weeks of uncertainty, the researchers at the helm of respected polling agency VTsIOM have quit their jobs to set up their own independent agency, VTsIOM director Yury Levada said Tuesday.

The future of the team had been in doubt after Levada, who is regarded as the country's leading sociologist, announced a month ago that the polling firm he created 15 years ago was threatened by a government takeover. VTsIOM was being revamped into a joint-stock company, and the researchers were unsure whether they would be let go or lose their independence.

Levada said Tuesday that he and dozens of his staff have decided not to wait any longer and have set up a polling agency named Analytical Service VTsIOM, or VTsIOM-A for short.

"This means that we have survived and will live on," Levada said, sounding cautiously optimistic in a telephone interview.

He expressed hope that those who trusted VTsIOM would stay on with the researchers and continue to rely on their surveys.

He said VTsIOM-A has been registered as an autonomous noncommercial organization and will keep the VTsIOM logo, which appears on everything his team publishes. VTsIOM-A will have to modify the web site where polls are posted.

Levada would not comment on whether the choice of name and logo for the new agency might lead to a trademark dispute.

He said most of his 90 staffers have decided not to work under new VTsIOM management and that they would try to get by on commercial contracts -- as they had done at VTsIOM for more than a decade, having seen no government funding.

"I can cautiously say that most of our team will come as well," said Levada, who had sounded disillusioned and pessimistic about the prospect of setting up a new firm in an interview less than two weeks ago.

Levada said that he has tentatively arranged for a new office and his staffers are packing up their things.

The researchers, however, will not be able to take a lot with them since just about everything they have bought over the years, including computers and furniture, is state property.

The Property Ministry, which is overhauling VTsIOM on behalf of the government, welcomed the researchers' departure, saying it offered an easy solution to a potentially tough problem.

"Now they can really become independent, step into the market and live according to the laws of the market, which include paying taxes and competition," ministry spokesman Alexander Parshukov said Tuesday.

Parshukov said VTsIOM would be able to continue its activities without Levada.

"Are they the only sociologists in the country? What is it, are there no universities left in the country that are training sociologists?" he said.

He added that VTsIOM's new board of directors met for the first time last Friday. The board, which includes at least seven officials from various ministries, discussed bureaucratic issues and made no decision about the agency's future. He refused to say whether the board had leaned toward retaining Levada or dismissing him.

Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center who amply used VTsIOM statistics in her recent book "Putin's Russia," said she was pleased Levada was trying to maintain the independence of his research.

"We can only welcome this fact because Russia is obviously in great need of a sociological organization that is capable of giving an adequate picture of the public mood," she said.

Shevtsova suggested that the Kremlin itself might at some point need to use VTsIOM-A's services to obtain an objective picture that it cannot get from "pocket" pollsters.

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