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Ukraine: First Post-Soviet Census Results Sparking Controversy

  • Askold Krushelnycky

For Ukraine, the country's first-ever census is an important step toward affirming an identity that has often come under scrutiny in the past. The statistics on Ukraine's large Russian minority are probably the most sensitive aspect of the census. As RFE/RL reports, partial results showing a drop in Ukraine's Russian population have already sparked controversy.

Prague, 14 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Ukraine conducted its first-ever census as an independent country in December 2001. Past census counts on what included present-day Ukrainian territory -- by Soviet, tsarist, Austrian, and Polish authorities -- were often criticized by Ukrainians as skewing figures to their disadvantage.

Soviet-era census counts on Ukrainian territory were routinely falsified by officials and further skewed when Ukrainians falsely identified themselves as Russians, believing it would accord them special privileges. Many also declared Russian to be their mother tongue at a time when speaking Ukrainian on the streets of the capital Kyiv could lead to being accused of nationalism.

With no reliable census data from the past, the results of the 2001 count have been eagerly anticipated. The full report will not be published until later this year, but some preliminary figures released on 6 January are already causing a stir. They show the total number of inhabitants shrinking since the last census in 1989 by some 3 million people, from 51.5 million to 48.5 million.

For many, the most sensitive aspect of the preliminary report are the figures on Ukraine's ethnic Russian and Russian-speaking populations. For the past decade, Ukraine's Russians have campaigned for Russian to be made the country's second official language and for more schools to teach in Russian.

Government officials seeking to establish a solid national identity in Ukraine have steadfastly rejected such suggestions, saying the language issue is a vital indication of Ukrainian national identity and that Russian would quickly surpass Ukrainian if it were also granted official status.

Previous census counts had showed the number of self-declared Ukrainians steadily diminishing, from 76.8 percent in 1959 to 72.7 percent in 1989. At the same time, the number of people declaring themselves to be ethnic Russians had risen, peaking at just over 22 percent.

But new census results show a reversal in trend, with self-declared Russians dropping to 17.3 percent and Ukrainians rising to 77.8 percent of the total population.

The results have caused consternation among Ukraine's Russians, many of whom have accused Ukrainian officials of manipulating the results. One prominent member of the country's Russian community called the census results a bureaucratic attempt to solve Ukraine's anxieties about its Russian-speaking population by "dissolving them into Ukrainian society."

Russian speakers are not the only group to cry foul. Lyubov Stelmakh, an official with the Ukrainian State Statistics Committee, which conducted the census, said her organization has also come under fire from Ukrainian nationalists who say their numbers have been underrepresented. "There was a lot of this kind of hysteria during the census itself, from both Ukrainian nationalists and the Russian side, which to some extent possibly obstructed the smooth conducting of the census. Even now when Ukrainian and Russian representatives talk [about the census], they accuse the other's community of abusing the census process," Stelmakh said.

Stelmakh said she has no doubt the census was conducted honestly and added that the Ukrainian Constitution grants citizens the right to confirm the contents of their census forms after they were filled out by census takers. She said that no instances of manipulation or falsification have surfaced in relation to last year's census. "In practice, the census was carried out by ordinary Ukrainian citizens because it was impossible for the government's statistics body to do it on its own. More than 200,000 citizens of Ukraine were hired to carry out the census directly, and these consisted of Ukrainians, Russians, Crimean Tatars, Jews, and others," Stelmakh said.

The statistics show that the only region of Ukraine where ethnic Russians outnumber Ukrainians is Crimea. Although some sociologists say the actual number may be somewhat lower, the number of people throughout the country who listed Ukrainian as their native tongue rose by nearly 3 percentage points, from 64.7 in 1989 to 67.5 today.

Offering an explanation for the rise in self-declared Ukrainians and Ukrainian speakers, Stelmakh said the census was the first to be conducted free of Soviet-style coercion and that people feel more comfortable speaking freely about their identity. "The number of Ukrainians has grown in the Russian-language areas, in the eastern regions like Donbas, and in the southern regions. When the Russian secret service was operating [in Soviet times] -- excuse me, the picture looked completely different. The number of Ukrainians has grown because the national awareness of Ukrainians is much higher than during the 1989 census. They have thought about who they really are," Stelmakh said.

Ivan Lozovyy is the head of the Institute for Statehood and Democracy, an independent Ukrainian think tank. He said that the census shows that Ukraine is undergoing what he calls "an extraordinarily strong and healthy process of national consolidation." He believes many people of mixed Ukrainian and Russian origin who in the past would have stated their nationality as Russian have now decided they are Ukrainian. "The ethnic label is in many ways an arbitrary one. A person says, 'I'm an ethnic Ukrainian' or 'I'm an ethnic Russian,' first, without a doubt, because of their ancestry, but also -- and this is not an insignificant factor -- because of how they view themselves," Lozovyy said.

Lozovyy believes the census data were collected and tabulated fairly and that the dwindling number of Russians can be explained by the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which saw many Ukrainian Russians return to Russia and halted the steady flow to Ukraine of other Russians seeking jobs or retirement on the Black Sea coast. He said Ukraine's beleaguered economy has also led to a general decline in the population. "Even official statistics show that hundreds of thousands of people have left Ukraine, primarily to earn money working elsewhere, and also to emigrate permanently to neighboring countries. The birthrate in Ukraine is very low -- it's among the lowest in Europe, which is a big problem. I think that a combination of all these factors has led to the fall in the population," Lozovyy said.

Lozovyy said the census, which was initially delayed because of financial problems and a dearth of laws on collecting confidential information, was of great importance for Ukraine. "Undoubtedly, the census conducted [in 2001] will play an important role in Ukrainian state building, because these statistics are the first compiled within the framework of an independent Ukraine, albeit with a certain delay. It's a very important element, I'd say, for the pride of ordinary citizens that we at last have a census in our nation, and we know who we are and who lives here," Lozovyy said.

It will still be some time before the final results of the census are known. Stelmakh said a full report will be completed only by the end of this year.