Friday, October 16, 2009

Window on Eurasia: ‘The Kremlin Thinks It Can Manage Statistics Just as It Does Elections’

Paul Goble

Vienna, October 16 – Vladimir Sokolin’s reassignment from head of the Russian State Statistics Committee (Rosstat) to lead the CIS Intergovernmental Statistics Committee appears to be a form of bureaucratic exile in the wake of his sharp criticism of Moscow for delaying the next Russian census and the Russian government’s downgrading of statistics as a whole.
In a sharply worded interview published in this week’s “Itogi,” Sokolin acknowledged that statistical work in Russia, despite his efforts over the past 11 years as Rosstat head to bring Russian government statistics up to world-class levels could not be said to be in the best situation even compared to Russia’s neighbors (
But Sokolin’s criticisms as harsh as they were did not compare with those lodged by other Russian demographers and statisticians at a Moscow conference this week. One of them, Irina Eliseyeva, a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, delivered the following withering assessment (
As she pointed out, “even Belarus is conducting a census, and statistics there is subordinate to the presidential administration.” But in Russia, another statistician there observed, it appears that “the Kremlin has decided that it is possible to administer statistics just as it administers the results of elections.”
And with Sokolin’s departure, many Russian scholars who rely on statistics for their work fear for the future. “If a political appointee takes over,” they said, then he may be able to speak the language of those in power, something that will not necessarily work to the benefit of statistical work.
But “if the service is headed by one of its own people” – and most involved expect Sokolin’s current deputy to be elevated – then, unfortunately statistical work will continue as it with less attention and funding and an ever greater willingness of the Russian powers that be to politicize its work.
In his “Itogi” interview, Sokolin said he was leaving his post with “mixed feelings.” On the one hand, he said he took great pride in what he had achieved there during his career which extends back to 1970 and especially over the last decade when he was the director of Russian state statistics.
But on the other, he said, “he has very serious concerns about the future” because “unfortunately” Russia’s state statistics today are not experiencing the best of times” in part because Rosstat is now subordinated to the Economic Development Ministry and therefore is given more political direction than is good for either statistics or the government.
That subordination, something he labeled “a big mistake,” helps to explain why Moscow delayed the 2010 census to 2013. Of course, he acknowledged, other countries have delayed censuses for various reasons – Russia did it once before in 1999 – but “as a rule,” such delays are imposed by “third world” countries,” not by the leaders of “developed countries.”
If comparisons with the US, which has never delayed a census in 220 years, are rejected, he went out, then consider Russia’s closest neighbors: Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Tajikistan have conducted censuses recently. Belarus is conducting one this year. And Georgia and Tajikistan are slated to do so in 2010. “Are these countries much wealthier than we?”
Russia’s statistics on demographic questions are not the only things that have suffered, Sokolin continued. Moscow is not maintaining or releasing adequate or accurate statistics on the country’s economic development or lack thereof, something that makes planning and policy implementation problematic at best.
(Indeed, Boris Kagarlitsky, the head of the Moscow Institute of Globalization and Social Movements, said that may be the primary reason that the Russian government is seeking to control more fully statistics: “not to misinform the population but to create a more favorable picture in the eyes of investors (
But if Moscow is distorting economic statistics for short-term gain, the distortions of data on demographic measures that the Russian government is introducing by delaying censuses, not asking certain kinds of questions, and failing to record data on a large number of measures are likely to have far greater consequences.
The conference of demographers in Moscow earlier this week identified among many other problems, the following shortcomings: Moscow no longer collects data on births, deaths, divorces, deaths and migration with the degree of precision the Soviet authorities did. And it has made census declarations anonymous thus increasing the likelihood of false reporting.

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