Thursday, August 7, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Post-Soviet States Falsify Statistics on Ethnicity for Political Purposes

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 6 – Officials in Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation are falsifying data on the ethnic composition of the populations of those two countries, in the first case to suggest that the share of ethnic Russians has fallen more than it has and in the second to suggest that both the size of the population and the share of ethnic Russians in it have not fallen as far.
Because ethnic composition figures are among the most politically sensitive and febrile data sets in these countries, governments there long have had motive and opportunity to manipulate them, actions that both scholars in the region and more broadly have documented in one way or another.
But the last week has featured the appearance of two articles, one on the number of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan and the second on the number of ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation, which together may contribute to a broader public discussion of an issue officialdom has been reluctant to raise.
In an article on the site, Igor Kurbatov recalls that many Russians in the early 1990s recognized that Kazakh officials were manipulating census data to boost the number of Kazakhs relative to ethnic Russians not only to legitimate themselves but to justify a division of the Soviet spoils (
But for most of the intervening period, possible Kazakh census manipulations attracted relatively little attention, although recently, Kurbatov continues, “there is good reason to again turn to this theme,” not only for what it says about conditions on the ground but also about the image Astana seeks to project.
According to the 1998 Kazakhstan census, ethnic Kazakhs formed 51.8 percent of that country’s population, with ethnic Russians forming 31.4 percent, and the remainder scattered. But according to Kazakhstan figures for 2006, the share of ethnic Kazakhs had risen to 58.6 percent while that of ethnic Russians had fallen further to 26.1 percent.
For those figures to be true, Kurbatov says, the number of ethnic Russians in Kazakhstan would have had to decline by one million between 1999 and 2005, a number that other demographic data do not support. For that period, there were 155,448 more deaths than births among Russians and outmigration equaled 447,850.
That means that the ethnic Russian population for this period in fact declined about 600,000, raising the question of how the Kazakhs calculated it at 1,000,000 – almost 400,000 more – and it strongly suggests that Kazakhstan officials have simply falsified the numbers in order to reduce the ethnic Russian share of their country’s population.
Meanwhile, in a “Russkiy bazaar” article entitled “How Can One Make a Taji9k into a Russian?” Sergei Baimukhametov suggests that some Russian officials are engaging in similar kinds of falsification, albeit for somewhat different purposes and in ways that are unlikely to remain hidden for long (
In order to conceal both the impact immigration is having on the ethnic mix of the declining population of the Russian Federation and the failure of ethnic Russians to “return home” as compatriots, some Russian officials are substituting the wish for the result and implying that those counted as “compatriots” are more Slavic than is in fact the case.
The problem, Baimukhametov argues, arises because of the ethnic membership of the immigrants. “No one anywhere wants to talk about this aloud,” lest such discussions spark political controversies. But in fact, Russian legislation includes “a playing at definitions” that is creating a serious statistical and ultimately political problem.
According to the “Russkiy bazaar” writer, existing law begins to defining “compatriot abroad” as “persons who had been citizens of the USSR,” but then other portions of the law and the instructions officials have been given to implement it narrow that term to include “only ethnic Russians of the former Soviet republics or a bit more broadly members of Slavic groups.”
For Russian reporting on the ethnic composition of the population to be both accurate and reliable, then Moscow will have to modify existing law to specify that the term “compatriots” includes “all non-Russians and Russians.” But, asks Baimukhametov rhetorically, “will Tajik, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, or Moldovan gastarbeiters be included in the ranks of [non-ethnic] Russians?”
That will be difficult for them and difficult for ethnic Russians in the Russian Federation itself. If the ten to fifteen million migrants were to be naturalized in this way, then the percentage of genuinely ethnic Russians in the country would be much lower than Moscow and ethnic Russians want.
And Baimukhametov says, experts now insist that “for the foreseeable future, such new arrivals will remain the chief source of labor reserves” and that “one must design a migration policy on the basis of this rather than out of attempts to artificially correct the nationality composition” of the Russian Federation.

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