Thursday, December 17, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Russian Census Officials Wrestling with ‘Sensitive’ Ethnic and Religious Questions

Paul Goble

Vienna, December 17 – The 2010 Russian census will not ask any question about the religious affiliation of respondents, Rosstat officials say, but it will press for information on the equally “sensitive” question of ethnic identification, even though the Russian constitution specifies that citizens have the right to declare or not declare an ethnic identity.
On Tuesday, the State Statistical Committee (Rosstat) held a conference with the heads of the territorial organs of government statistics in the Southern Federal District to discuss various aspects of the census process and problems that the Moscow officials anticipate in the count (
Irina Zbarskaya, the head of Rosstat’s Administration of Statistics on the Population and Health, discussed with the group recent amendments to the census law intended to improve its coverage by allowing census takers to turn to government files in cases where individuals cannot be contacted or refuse to answer.
But she said that under the law, the census could secure information in this way only about the gender and age of the individual in question. Even if other data is available in official files, Zbarskaya continued, the census is prohibited by this law from making use of it in the enumeration.
(In the 2002 census, Russian census officials, pleading poverty, collected information on roughly a third of the population by turning to such official files, an approach that not only violated international rules for censuses but also distorted the changing relative size of declining and increasing ethnic groups.)
During her talk, Zbarskaya “noted with regret” that her agency “had not been able to convince” the government of the need to compel people to take part in the census. According to the law, any individual has the right to refuse to answer questions, even though that inevitably reduces the value of the returns.
But she and her colleagues, Zbarskaya continued, have not given up. The Duma of the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous District has sent to the Duma a draft law that would make participation in the census mandatory,” and she expressed the hope that regional statistics officials would express their support for that measure.
As for now, she said, “this amendment is living its own life, according to the rules and procedures of the work of the Duma.” If the legislature does take up and pass this amendment, she said, Rosstat will be pleased, but until that happens, the census organizers will continue to work according to the current law.
In other comments, Zbarskaya discussed how the census will deal with the “sensitive” questions” of nationality and religion. “After the 2002 census,” she pointed out, “a law on personal data was adopted in 2006. Ethnic self-identification “is on the list of so-called ‘sensitive’ data,” which requires the “written agreement” of the individual being polled.
That limitation, she said, “makes it extremely difficult to obtain data on nationality.” Rosstat sought and obtained “after long consultations” with the legislative and executive branches “a compromise norm, according to which a person interviewed is assumed to have given his agreement “if the relevant part of the form is filled in by the census taker.”
That provision, it should be noted although Zbarskaya did not, represents a change from the arrangement Rosstat announced last month in which an individual would have to personally write his nationality on this form for it to be obtained at all, an arrangement that might have led many citizens not to declare any nationality at all in the upcoming census.
According to Zbarskaya, “nationality membership is the most important characteristic of an individual. ‘Now only the census is the source of information about the nationality composition of the country. Our Constitution, which so far no one has changed begins with the words ‘We, the multi-national people…’” – and thus we must give this information.”
Asked whether the 2010 census would feature a question about another “sensitive” issue – belief in one or another religion – Zbarskaya said that “this question is not included,” adding that “when this issue was raised I 2002, not one of the officially registered confessional groups, including the Russian Orthodox Church advanced such a proposal.”
As far as religious attachments are concerned, she continued, there are “the very same problems that there are with nationality.” And they are complicated by the fact that the European Union Convention on Human Rights to which Russia is a signatory speaks against the collection of such personal information.
In reporting Zbarskaya’s remarks, the Russian Orthodox portal Russkaya liniya asked “who does not want to know what the religious make-up of our people is?” The answer almost certainly is the leadership of many religious groups, who routinely make claims about total membership far beyond what survey data show.
Thus, the Russian Orthodox Church says that 80 percent of the population is Orthodox because that fraction of the population is made up of ethnic communities that have traditionally professed Orthodoxy, even though survey research shows that the actual percentage of believers is much lower. The same is true for the Islamic community.
And that is politically sensitive. Two days ago, Stavropol television reported, for example, that a far lower percentage of children in schools there wanted to study Orthodoxy as part of their ethical and religious program in school, sparking outrage and an investigation by the Church (

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