Vienna, November 24 – The Duma two days ago passed Russian government-proposed legislation that will govern the October 2010 census, introducing a set of new questions not asked in the last enumeration but also changing the way in which respondents will declare their ethnic identity [“natsional’nost’”].
According to news reports, the census will not only collect statistic data on migration and ask additional questions about education, marital status and occupation – including for the first time, the status of homemaker – but force respondents to write down their nationality rather than allowing the census taker to do so (www.annews.ru/news/detail.php?ID=201748).
On the one hand, that approach will create the opportunity for individuals to record their ethnic membership without the direct intervention of census officials, although, if past Russian and standard international practice is followed, the latter will use codes at various stages in the process to group responses into defined categories before they are tabulated.
But on the other, for at least some groups, this new arrangement may, given that the question will be asked in Russian and in most cases by an ethnic Russian, intimidate some respondents into declaring themselves to be ethnic Russians [“russkiye”] when in fact they would in other circumstances say they are members of other ethnic communities.
To the extent that happens, it could lead to an overstatement of the number and hence the percentage of ethnic Russians in the population, but in a way that is unlikely to attract as much criticism from the international expert community as did the distortions that Russian officials introduced in 2002.
In the earlier enumeration, Russian officials, pleading poverty, failed to contact at least 90 percent of the total number declared as international rules require, relying instead on data in interior ministry files for nearly a third of the population and thus boosting the size of the ethnic Russians who are declining relative to those, predominantly Muslim, who are growing.
(The measure passed this week also specifically allows census officials to use interior ministry and other government files to compile data but only if an individual refuses to respond and then only about the respondent’s gender and age, but not, at least according to Annews.ru, about his or her nationality.)
These arrangements are intriguing because, as many Moscow commentators have noted, one reason Russian officials had wanted to put off the 2010 census until after the next presidential elections was the very real fear that the enumeration would show a radical decline in the number of ethnic Russians and a radical growth among non-Russians.
Consequently, the legislation as passed suggests that there may be a new, albeit more hidden way for distorting figures on nationality, all the more so because the Duma measure does not require that individual respondents personally write out their answers to any other of the questions the census will ask.
Yet another provision of the census legislation is worth noting: The measure hands over to the governments of the federal subjects “a significant part of the functions for the preparation of the census.” Among other things, the regional governments will be responsible for housing census personnel as well as providing them with transportation and office space.
The Duma measure specifies that the money the regional governments will need for this will come from the federal budget, but it is likely, given how financially hard-pressed some regions are, that at least a few of the federal subjects will divert any such funds to other purposes and thus introduce yet another set of distortions in to the 2010 census results.