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Russia: Critics Say Census May Amount To Little -- Or, In Chechnya, Too Much

  • Gregory Feifer

As Russia ties up the loose ends of information gathering for its first post-Soviet census, human rights defenders say the State Statistics Committee has grossly inflated the numbers of Chechens living in the war-torn republic to make it appear the civilian population has suffered less than it actually has. The committee is hailing the census as a great success, but a large number of critics including independent pollsters say they will not trust the information the nationwide survey will produce next year. They say figures from Chechnya are but one example of a series of mistakes -- the impact of which will be impossible even to gauge.

Moscow, 6 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- As the Kremlin pushes ahead with its intractable Chechen campaign following last month's hostage crisis, critics say the government is trying to make it seem that the civilian population in the breakaway republic has suffered less than it actually has.

That is just one of the accusations leveled against the State Statistics Committee, or Goskomstat, which has wrapped up collecting information for its first census since the Soviet collapse. Many agree that the results, due to be released next year, will not reflect the country's true demographic situation.

In addition to alleged miscounts in Chechnya, media reports say a significant number of people throughout Russia simply refused to fill out census forms as a way of protesting a government they feel has abandoned them. Others, despite promises of confidentiality, did not fill out forms because of fears they would be tracked down by the tax police; many Russians do not pay their taxes.

The popular business daily "Vedomosti" echoed a sentiment shared by many Russian newspapers, writing, "A scandalous political outcome of the census is that it has demonstrated people's extraordinary lack of faith in their own state."

Some experts say the census results should not be judged by critical press reports alone. Vladimir Andreenkov is the general director of the Institute of Comparative Social Research. He says it is wrong to assess Goskomstat's work solely on the basis of press coverage, which focused primarily on isolated incidents: "If one person was somehow incorrectly interviewed, that's not a problem, it's not a big mistake. Two people is also not very big. But if 10 percent is interviewed incorrectly, that already raises questions about the quality of the census. So that's why one absolutely shouldn't judge the quality of the census by what the media has to say about it. But nonetheless, [the reports] make one wary."

Despite such remarks, Andreenkov himself is highly critical of the census effort. He says simply judging the quality of Goskomstat's information gathering will be impossible because no independent organization monitored its conduct. That oversight alone is enough to put the entire project in doubt: "In a normal situation, it would have been necessary to hire some kind of organization after the census was taken -- say an academic or university research organization -- which would have conducted an analysis of quality."

Like other large Soviet-era bureaucracies, Goskomstat does not generally welcome outside monitoring. But the failure to contract an outside monitor is not necessarily Goskomstat's fault alone. Such a process is expensive -- perhaps prohibitively. Andreenkov says lack of adequate financing is a key reason mistakes were made in the census in the first place.

Among the more serious allegations are claims that census takers ignored entire sections of apartment buildings. Some so-called "elite buildings" occupied by wealthy Russians, for example, have formidable security systems, making it hard to enter. Moreover, Andreenkov says, census takers were poorly trained and had inadequate supervision.

Another widespread complaint is that regional officials -- anxious to return their quota of census forms -- themselves provided information for census forms to be sent back to the statistics agency.

But Goskomstat head Vladimir Sokolin defends his agency, and praised the results of the census during a news conference late last month: "The most important thing for us is that, despite many worries, our population in the end was conscious of its civic duties and actively took part in the census. That's the most important result."

Sokolin says that none of the incidents reported in the media affected the overall quality of the information gathering: "We quickly and decisively reacted to those negative incidents that journalists reported on during the course of the census taking. We checked that information, and where it became clear that the information was actually substantiated, we naturally took measures to get rid of the inadequacies."

Sokolin denies reports that officials provided information to census takers in an attempt to meet quotas. He cites a recent poll, carried out by the pro-Kremlin Public Opinion Foundation, indicating that 93 percent of the people participating in the census provided information about themselves directly to census takers.

Sokolin adds that census takers only obtained information from state officials in the case of people refusing to answer questions -- and that even then authorities were asked only about peoples' age and sex.

One of the largest points of criticism concerned the census in Chechnya. An initial count registered 1.08 million people now residing in the war-torn republic -- higher than the number of Chechens who lived in the Soviet-era Chechen-Ingush Republic.

According to a report by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, it is also around 300,000 people higher than estimates in 1999, when Russia's second military campaign began.

Since that time, around 100,000 Chechens are estimated to have been killed, while another 150,000 have fled to the neighboring region of Ingushetia.

Reports say Chechens contributed to the confusion by failing to declare dead family members, in order to continue collecting pensions and other state benefits on behalf of relatives who are, officially, still "alive." Moscow-installed administrators are also said to inflate figures in order to be able to claim more funds from Moscow.

But human rights defenders reserve their greatest criticism for the federal government, saying it wants to overreport the number of Chechens living in their breakaway region in order to bolster claims that it has established stability in the war-torn region.

Yakov Ettinger, a member of Moscow's Bureau of Human Rights group, says the results are a "clear falsification": "It's a clear padding of results, with the aim of showing that the civilian population has practically not suffered at all."

One of the complicating factors, Ettinger says, is that the census makes no distinction between ethnic Russians and Chechens living in the region. Some state agencies speak of 1 million people in total living in Chechnya; others of 1 million Chechens living in the entire territory of Russia, Ettinger adds.

Goskomstat officials say they will not have clear information from Chechnya until the census forms are processed, but cite a number of reasons for the unexpectedly high number reported during the census-taking process. Chief among them are reportedly high birthrates.

Irina Zbarskaya, who heads Goskomstat's census department, says the agency will carefully review its information: "First, we will look at the filled-out information itself very carefully -- a visual review, that's the first thing that will be done. Beyond that, there's a series of demographic facts we will use to try to ascertain the veracity and scope of the survey of the population during the census in the Chechen Republic."

The collected census forms will now be scanned into computers for processing, which will begin next year. Initial results are due to be released in March or April 2003.

But Andreenkov of the Institute of Comparative Social Research says he does not trust Goskomstat's methods. Judging from his own work in cooperation with the agency, he says, in general the agency's results are "completely unsatisfying": "At the moment that's especially tied to the weak financing of the organization. But also to very conservative and old traditions. While factually speaking, many scholars from academic and university organizations work with [Goskomstat], they [at Goskomstat] nonetheless basically work independently -- very cloistered -- and there's no practice of close cooperation with scholarly organizations."

During a news conference last month, one reporter for a foreign newspaper asked Goskomstat chief Sokolin why no one in the reporter's office building -- a so-called "diplomatic quarter" run by the Foreign Ministry in which foreigners live and work -- was polled, despite the fact that foreigners residing in Russia for over a year were asked to take part in the census.

Sokolin replied, to general laughter at his Soviet-era aura of secretive omniscience, "Don't worry, we registered you."

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