Monday, December 6, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Ever Fewer Moscow Experts Trust Russian Statistical Agency, Paper Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, December 6 – Despite all its efforts to “rehabilitate itself” in the eyes of the public, Rosstat, the Russian government’s statistical agency, has lost the trust of experts and businessmen, a serious problem in the wake of the 2010 census and one that is forcing ever more people, including some officials, to turn to enumerations and polls conducted by others.
Despite the importance of accurate information but consistent with a more general trend among Russian officialdom, the supposedly “neutral” Rosstat is now prepared to present reality “as a little better than it is,” according to an article in “Nezavisimaya gazeta,” despite the ways in which that reduces its usefulness (
The paper’s Anastasiya Bashkatova in an article entitled “Manipulation by Calculation” says that this was highlighted last Thursday when Rosstat held a press conference to release the initial results of the 2010 census, ones that it put together not just from the responses of those surveyed but drawing on official sources as well.
Some 143.2 million census forms were filled out, Rosstat said, but not all of those were completed either by those enumerated or by relatives (usually parents) who knew them. Instead, in order to deal with the large number of people who didn’t take part in the enumeration, the statistical agency turned to various institutions to get its numbers.
Rosstat chief Aleksandr Surinov suggested that these additions covered 2.5 percent of the population, but as the “Nezavisimaya” journalist noted and as he conceded, the leading survey organizations of the county – the Public Opinion Foundation, the Levada Center and VTsIOM – suggested the rate of non-participation was from seven to 11 percent.
Surinov “explained this difference” by pointing out that “the census involved both the civil population as well as prisoners, military personnel, and draftees.” The private survey centers, he said, “typically take into consideration only the civil population.” But neither this argument nor others convinced the experts.
The Rosstat chief added, for example, that his agency’s samples were larger than those of the private agencies and thus more precise, and he said that his staff was increasingly precise not only in its census counts but in its measure of GDP where the difference between three methods of calculation had been reduced from one percent in the 1990s to half that now.
But Bashkatova continues, “despite all the attempts of Rosstat to rehabilitate itself, the expert community has finally lost trust in official statistics,” with ever fewer analysts willing to comment on official statistics and ever more demographers, sociologists, economists and political scientists relying on unofficial ones.
Today, many of them believe, “statistical data in Russia are ever more often used by the powers that be for the manipulation of public opinion, as an indication of their own legitimacy, and as a justification for increasing or reducing financing of this or that sphere of the economy” rather than as a reliable portrait of reality.
“While the economic situation is getting worse,” Bashkatova says, “the reports show that everything in the country is normal.” Such a distorted picture is especially important for the powers that be, she continues, because of the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections “when it is necessary to demonstrate stability.”
Aleksey Makarkin, deputy head of the Moscow Center of Political Technologies, says that many people had hoped after the falsifications of Soviet statistics, that Russia would have an independent statistical agency that could provide an accurate “thermometer” of the situation both for the government and for experts. But that has not happened.
While progress was made toward that goal in the 1990s, he adds, “after the administrative reform of 2004 and after the retirement of former [Rosstat] head Vladimir Sokolin, the influence of the government on Rosstat increased,” reducing its independence and transforming it into a handmaiden of the powers that be.
FBK analyst Igor Nikolayev agrees. Rosstat has become “a calculator,” although “in the worst sense of this word” because it calculates what the government needs rather than counts what it is supposed to. For example, Rosstat says there are “approximately 285,000 migrants” in the country, but the World Bank gives a figure of over 12 million.
Equally problematic and doubtful, the economist says, are Rosstat figures on productivity of the meat industry and on investments. Neither withstand careful analysis; indeed, they like many other figures released by the statistical agency are internally inconsistent, something that by itself points to problems.
But an even more serious one is shown by Rosstat’s release of corrected figures. All national statistical administrations do that as more information becomes available, Nikolayev says, but thoswe on which one can rely seldom vary by as much as 10 percent. Rosstat, in contrast, has changed its numbers by as much as 400 percent.
Thus, in February 2010, the agency initially reported that industrial production had grown by 1.9 percent over the previous year, but after “review,” it set this growth at 8.4 percent, “more than four times greater” but a figure that the powers that be could point to with much greater pleasure, even though it is almost certainly inaccurate.
Other analysts are less categorical. Yevgeny Yasin of the Higher School of Economics, for example, tells “Nezavisimaya” that the problems at Rosstat reflect only “methodological” shortcomings rather than findings distorted on order from the powers that be, although even he acknowledged that Rosstat does time the release of its findings now to help precisely those people.

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