Charlottesville, June 9 – The next Russian census, announced for 2010, may be delayed, less because of the financial problems Moscow officials have cited up to now but because of political concerns that any accurate count would show that Vladimir Putin’s social policies have not been nearly as successful as he and his government have claimed.
And even if it is not put off until the situation in the country improves, Pavel Sedakov argues in this week’s “Russian Newsweek,” there is an increasing risk that its results will be distorted for many of the same reasons and in many of the same ways that the ones reported after the 2002 enumeration were (www.runewsweek.ru/country/28698/?r1=rss&r2=full).
For the last several months, officials at Rosstat, the State Statistical Committee, have complained about cutbacks in the resources they have to carry out the census, reductions that will mean they will be able to ask fewer questions and thus provide less detailed information than they had planned.
And most commentaries on the upcoming census had concluded that the current economic crisis was to blame for this, but now Sedakov suggests that political calculations may be far more important. According to him, Putin and his regime wanted to be able to use the census results as evidence of their successes in advance of the 2012 elections.
Now, given the economic and social problems Russia is suffering from, any honest census will reflect a much less upbeat situation. Consequently, the regime must either put off the enumeration until the situation improve, or it must decide to restrict the data collected or to falsify that data and erect new “Potemkin villages” in place of real ones.
One Russian official at the finance ministry told Sedakov that “the census really is under threat,” and staffers at Rosstat confirmed that, although they pointed to already planned cutbacks rather than a delay as the greater danger not only so far but in terms of the utility of the census itself.
One senior Rosstat official said that “without the results of the census, it will not be possible” to design policies in a wide range of areas. And if it is inaccurate, Yevgeny Gontmakher of the Center for Social Research and Innovation added, “how will it be possible to plan, if no one knows anything precise” about the population?
What the expert community is especially frightened of is that the authorities will simply decide to falsify the results of the enumeration in the ways that they did in 2002. Mikhail Tulsky, a Moscow political analyst, pointed out that census takers then visited only 59 percent of all Russian homes and only 34 percent in Moscow, even though they were supposed to visit all.
The remaining results were compiled by telephone interviews, conversations with friends and relatives, or – and this distorted the results the most – the use of official registration data, something that tended to overstate the continuing domination of groups, like the ethnic Russians, who were declining in size, and undercount those, like the non-Russians, who were increasing.
In one Moscow district, Tulsky said, only 1500 people were contacted, but the census takers filled in 10,500 census forms, with no clear indication of how they got the data or whether the various lines were filled in correctly. If that were to be repeated, he said, it would mean that Russia would have been without an accurate count since 1989.
But Georgy Satarov, the President of the Indem Foundation, said that this is exactly what people should expect. After all, when there is falsification and dishonesty in so many spheres, why should anyone assume that the census will be exempt from the same kind of official pressure and distortions?
And one of the greatest sources of such , Moscow officials say, will be from local and regional officials, who will want to have as many “dead souls” as possible on their census tracts in order to obtain funds from the central government budget, much of which is distributed on the basis of official population figures, accurate or not.
But as Aleksey Rodionov of the Moscow Institute of Urban Economics pointed out, such errors are almost inevitable in any enumeration anywhere. And he insisted that “this is not the time of Stalinism” when it was forced to falsify results in order “to cover up the results of hunger and repression.” Now, he argued, it is “sufficient to put off the census until better times.”