Saturday, October 31, 2009

Window on Eurasia: 2010 Census Will Now Take Place on Time But Won’t Be as Comprehensive as Planned

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 31 –Vladimir Putin said yesterday that his government has come up with the funds needed to hold the next census, thus allowing it to proceed on schedule in 2010 rather than be delayed to 2013. But the reduced level of funding he announced and changes at Rosstat mean the count will be less comprehensive and less accurate than many had hoped.
Konstantin Laykam, acting director of the federal statistics agency Rosstat, said that Putin had come up with 10.5 billion rubles (300 million US dollars) for the 2010 census and that the count would not have to be delayed to 2013 as Russian officials had announced earlier. As a result, Rosstat is resuming its preparations (
But if this rescheduling is welcome, it has two troubling aspects that may make this count, just like the 2002 enumeration, less valuable than it otherwise might have been. On the one hand, the amount Putin has now budgeted is only 60 percent of the 18 billion rubles originally planned, forcing Rosstat to scale back the scope of the census.
And on the other, the controversy over the scheduling of the census -- the government said was the result of the economic crisis, but critics suggested was intended to hide until after the 2012 elections some disturbing trends -- prompted the resignation of the former Rosstat head and raises questions as to whether the count will be any more honest than the one in 2002.
(The 2002 enumeration did not meet international standards for a census: Russian officials at that time, citing a lack of funds, counted directly only about two-thirds of the total number of people they included and used interior ministry files for the other third, a practice that overstated the number of groups declining in size and undercounted those on the rise.)
On Thursday, the day before Putin made his most recent announcement, Igor Yakovenko published an article in “Yezhednevny zhurnal” on the resignation of former Rosstat head Vladimir Sokolin and on the state of statistics in the Russian Federation under Putin and Dmitry Medvedev (
Sokolin resigned not only because of the controversy over the earlier announced delay in the holding of the next all-Russian census but because of his opposition to the Russian government’s approach to statistics as a whole. He is, Yakovenko says, “not an opposition figure,” but rather “a bureaucrat” who is “a genuine professional in the area of statistics.”
Combining those two roles in contemporary Russia, the “Yezhednevny zhurnal” writer continues, is “practically impossible.” And consequently, Sokolin resigned but “remaining within ‘the system’” – he will now head a CIS statistics group – “he nonetheless publicized the reasons for his departure and his disagreements with the current policy of the state.”
Sokolin’s biggest objection was to the government’s earlier decision to delay the census. The government’s explanation – a lack of money because of the crisis – “is impossible to take seriously,” Yakovenko writes on the basis of Sokolin’s declarations, given the amount involved and the fact that “a crisis is an illness” at which time it is “insane” to throw away a thermometer.
More serious, in the view of both Sokolin and Yakovenko, is the increasing tendency of the Russian powers that be to restore a Soviet approach to statistics, one in which the numbers released are supposed to support the regime’s policies and propaganda rather than to reflect reality, if that reality is otherwise.
Stalin, with whom as Yakovenko points out Putin “increasingly is attempting to identify himself,” had an especially cavalier attitude toward census figures, throwing out the 1937 results when they were different than he wanted and executing five of the eight heads of Soviet statistics in the pre-war period.
“The current Russian regime is not threatening the life of the leaders of Rosstat,” Yakovenko continues, “but the essence of the relationship [of the powers that be] to statistics has not changed. As before, the powers do not want to know real statistics characterizing the situation of the country. More than that, they are afraid of them to the point of panic.”
Among the figures they are most afraid of are those that cast doubt on their own ideological claims. Accurate statistical counts suggest that the total decline in the number of residents of the Russian Federation has been greater under Putin and Medvedev than it was in the 1990s. If an all-Russian enumeration confirms that, “who needs such a census?”
Yakovenko describes a similar pattern on other issues including the economy. But he argues that these are symptoms of two larger problems. On the one hand, he suggests, “the contemporary political regime of Russia is deforming the scientific and expert fields … forcing [its members to choose] between devotion to the truth and loyalty to the bosses.”
And on the other, he continues, “the role of the expert community in the formation of public opinion is changing because the basic channel of this influence is the media,” a sphere the government controls more tightly. And thus it has worked out that the current Russian rulers act as if they need accurate information “to a much lesser degree than their Soviet predecessors.”
Sokolin’s decision to resign in protest, Yakovenko argues, is one way for scholars and professional bureaucrats to bring about change. But the “Yezhednevny zhurnal” journalist concedes that such individual actions, however much they restore the moral image of those who make them, will have to be repeated by a large number before the regime responds.

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