Vienna, December 2 – Census takers in Russia next year will try to convince people to answer all questions on the form except one, according to the deputy head of the State Statistics Service. Those carrying out the census will be “categorically forbidden” from insisting that people respond to the query on the nationality to which they belong.
That exception, which Aleksandr Surinov announced in an interview in yesterday’s “Rossiiskaya gazeta” follows reports that census takers will ask people to write down their nationality rather than make an oral declaration as respondents will do in response to all other questions (www.rg.ru/2009/12/01/perepis.html).
This special handling of the issue of nationality highlights the political sensitivity of changes in the absolute and relative size of the ethnic Russian majority and non-Russian and often Muslim minorities and at least potentially opens the way for distortions or outright falsification of results on this issue – or at least suspicions about the results that will be reported.
That is all the more likely because of what happened during the last Russian Federation census in 2002. At that time, the Russian government in a clear violation of international rules pleaded poverty and used interior ministry files to compile data on nearly a third of the total population it claimed.
Taking that step introduced a variety of distortions into the final combined census results, but perhaps the most important from a political point of view was its overstatement of the number and percentage of ethnic Russians, who have been declining, and its understatement of the number and percentage of non-Russian groups, which have been increasing.
Although the Russian government has again pled poverty, in this case because of the international financial crisis, leading many to expect that the census would be postponed until after the 2012 presidential elections, whose outcome might be shaped by the result, Moscow in the end has decided to conduct the census as the Constitution requires.
But the government has reduced the amount of money available for the census, forcing the State Statistics Service to cut the number of questions and forms and to increase the number of people each of the census takers will have to contact, steps that in and of themselves will reduce the amount of information the census generates and increase the number of mistakes.
Most Moscow commentators have focused on the certainty that the census will show a continuing overall decline in the total population of the country as being the most politically sensitive issue, even though many recent measures suggest that the decline while continuing may be less steep than many had thought.
Surinov’s comment yesterday indicates that the overall number may be less a matter of concern than the ethnic mix, both for the country as a whole and for particular regions which have seen even larger swings in the balance between majority and minority nationalities as a result of migration.
There are many ways in which this decision could distort the results and how they are viewed. Three are especially important. First, and perhaps most likely, at least some people, either because they will be tired of answering questions or because they want to protest or otherwise express themselves, will choose not to answer.
It is far from certain that the same percentage of all nationality groups would make that choice. Instead, some groups might be more inclined not to name a nationality than others, a variation that the census will not provide the information needed to assess and correct for and thus itself a possible source of error.
Indeed, if the number of people from any group or region refusing to answer this question is even as few as five percent – and that would not be unexpected given international experience with census surveys -- it will be impossible to know the way in which the groups are changing in size both relative to their respective pasts and relative to each other.
Second, by suggesting that nationality, an ethnic category, is relatively unimportant – obviously, from the point of view of many, it can’t be important if the government doesn’t insist on an answer – many of those questioned may declare themselves to be “rossiyane,” the non-ethnic term for citizen of the Russian Federation.
If a sizeable number do so, some commentators are likely to see that as a welcome triumph of civic over ethnic nationalism, but depending on how the data are presented, it could either lead to a radical overstatement of the “Russianness” of the population or – and this is far more likely – to a dramatic undercount in the number of non-Russians.
And third, by introducing yet another uncertainty in yet another area, Moscow will lead to wild speculation that it is undercounting ethnic Russians or non-Russian nationalities, with those convinced that they are the victims of this likely to accept the argument that Moscow is out to get them, a feeling that will do little to promote either ethnic harmony or political stability.