Thursday, January 14, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Russian Officials Continue to Pressure Statistics Agency for Results They Want, Surinov Says

Paul Goble

Vienna, January 14 – Russian officials in the provinces and in Moscow regularly put pressure on the Federal Statistics Service if the latter’s results do not fit with their understanding of what is going on or threaten their standing with those above them, according to the service’s head, Aleksandr Surinov.
In an extensive interview in today’s “Rossiskaya gazeta,” Surinov says that officials, especially in the central government, often are also infuriated that the service cannot provide the data they want in a timely manner or change their reports when “more complete information” becomes available (
Surinov suggested that many officials do not understand that “in such a large country as [Russia],” it is simply “impossible” to gather information more quickly than his service is doing, even though many of its workers have access to even more than one computer. The data simply do not arrive that quickly.
Asked whether his agency collects classified information it does not release to the public, Surinov acknowledged that it does, noting that it was of two principle types: On the one hand, there is information about certain government factories. And on the other, there are data about particular individuals, which under international agreement, Moscow does not release.
Among Surinov’s comments, three others are especially worthy of note. First, he says that studies of food consumption are especially important because “dieticians say that 80 percent of mortality in Russia is determined by incorrect eating habits,” something he acknowledged, officials generally know nothing about.
Second, he adds, his agency is wrestling with measuring the shadow economy, which he said officials all “the unobserved economy,” especially since with the beginning of the economic crisis it has increased in size and now represents “approximately a fifth” of Russia’s gross domestic product.
According to Surinov, this “unobserved” sector includes five types of activity: first, production of goods and services which are prohibited, such as prostitution; second, production that is not declared to escape taxation; third, activities like tutoring which do not need to be registered but which contribute to the economy.”
Fourth, Surinov says, there is production by and for members of a single family. This involves not just agricultural production as in Soviet times but also construction activities. And fifth – and he stressed that this is not a uniquely Russian problem, there is economic activity which is “unobserved” because the statistics agencies lack the resources to measure it.
And third, Surinov says that while there are good data about some aspects of people leaving and arriving in Russia, there are many gaps, all the more so because “there is no international methodology” of counting them, so some who plan to change their place of residence are counted as tourists and vice versa.
Asked what were the most important events of 2009 with regard to Russian statistics, Surinov pointed to evidence that for the first time in many years, “the birth rate exceeded the death rate,” albeit “this was only during one month – August – but all the same is psychologically a very important moment.”
Another development that his statisticians tracked was the decline in inflation. And the third was government approval for holding the 2010 census, something that economic problems had called into question. That effort will soon begin: On April 1, reindeer herders in Yamal will be enumerated because that is the only time at which they come together as a group.
But the problems of statistics in the Russian Federation were also highlighted today by another report. Major General Aleksandr Kirilin, the head of the Defense Ministry’ department for memorializing those who have died defending the country, announced his agency will soon be providing a number many have long waited for (
His ministry, Kirilin said, has been creating “an electronic data base on human losses in the Great Fatherland War,” as World War II is known in Russia. “By the 65th anniversary of the Great Victory,” he continued, “we will finally arrive at an official statistic which will be set in a normative document of the government and publically released.’
Its publication, he suggested, should “end speculation on statistics concerning losses.” Kirilin is almost certainly overly optimistic. Not only are there the obvious problems of determining the actual number of death among both military personnel and the civilian population, but this figure remains one of the most politicized in Russia.
That is because raising the number of dead in that conflict has the effect of reducing the number of people who fell victim to Stalin’s tyranny, while reducing the number of deaths as a result of the war, given that no census was taken in the Soviet Union between 1939 and 1959, has the effect of highlighting Stalin’s crimes.

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