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Kazakhstan: Analysis From Washington -- Counting Trouble

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 10 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The announcement by Kazakhstan that it will conduct a census of its population opens a new era for the post-Soviet states, one in which all of them are likely to discover just how political population statistics inevitably are.

Yuri Shokamanov, the deputy chairman of Kazakhstan's statistical administration, said on Monday that his agency would conduct its first national census on February 25. Belarus will conduct a national census on February 16. And he noted that other former Soviet republics would follow over the next two years.

But in making this announcement, Shokamanov did not call attention to just how dramatic a step his government's action really is or just how much controversy such enumerations appear certain to generate.

For three reasons, these first post-Soviet censuses are likely to be especially controversial. First, there are going to be serious fights over just which questions to ask and equally which questions not to ask.

Should the census takers ask questions about ethnicity and nationality or only about citizenship? If they ask about ethnicity, the censuses in several of these countries are likely to reveal major shifts in the percent of different national groups.

In Ukraine, for example, surveys suggest that the percentage of the population that will declare itself to be ethnically Russian is likely to be far lower than the percentage that identified itself that way in the last Soviet census of 1989.

Such shifts would almost certainly have major and immediate political consequences, and thus there will be some who are likely to advocate that the census takers avoid such questions.

But if the census does not ask questions about ethnicity, such a failure will also have consequences. Some ethnic minorities will undoubtedly conclude that they are going to be "swallowed up" or at least ignored by the dominant group.

And thus these minorities almost certainly will fight for asking questions about ethnicity as a way to help preserve their status in the post-Soviet states.

Second, there are going to be political battles over which information to release and when.

Because many people in the post-Soviet states retain their Soviet-era reluctance to provide full and accurate information to officials who ask for it, at least some of them are going to be concerned about the release of any information from the census.

Some will undoubtedly argue that census data should be kept extremely confidential lest the declarations by individuals come back to haunt them.

But at the same time, any efforts by officialdom to manage the release of information from the census almost certainly will increase suspicions that the results have been distorted in a way that will benefit the officials at the expense of the citizenry as a whole.

And third, there are going to be even more intense struggles over how the information gathered is used for political redistricting or for budgetary allocations. These last struggles are likely to continue well after the censuses are completed.

If the data gathered are used to change the size of electoral districts or to change the allocation of funds, those who would benefit will press for its release, while those who would lose will almost certainly oppose it.

And if, as seems certain, these censuses prove to be incomplete -- journalists can be counted on to highlight cases where the census takers have missed someone -- then many people in this region are likely to look at any use of the numbers gathered as a political plot. None of these fights is unusual. In the United States, for example, questions about how to conduct the census in the year 2000 have already divided the Congress and sparked a series of closely-contested court cases -- just as they did before earlier counts.

But because the post-Soviet states will be conducting these surveys for the first time and will almost certainly want to establish national precedents that break from past and not always satisfactory Soviet practice, all these controversies are likely to be even greater.

And thus something that on its face seems quite neutral -- the enumeration of the population -- could become one of the most contentious political issues across this region over the next two years.