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Rusian demographer Aleksei Raksha (file photo)

In Russia, as in many other countries, the number of coronavirus infections has continued a grim upward march: 733,699 officially confirmed cases as of July 13.

The death toll, however, has only crept upward, now totaling 11,439 -- an unusually low figure that the Kremlin and Russian officials credit in part to the government's response to COVID-19.

For health demographers like Aleksei Raksha, employed by the state statistics agency Rosstat, something hasn't been right for months, and in May, he spoke out publicly: The low death toll wasn't due to a superior state response, he said, it was due to how coronavirus statistics were being counted.

In other words, Russia has been misclassifying COVID-19 deaths.

Two months after speaking out, Raksha received what may be official acknowledgment of his contribution to Russia's national discussion about the government's response: He was fired from his job, he said.

"It's official. My work at Rosstat is finished," he wrote in a July 3 Facebook post, using wording that implied he believes the decision on his dismissal came from higher up.

Russia's coronavirus mortality rate is currently around 1.5 percent. By contrast, the United States' rate is 4.1 percent. Another similar statistic -- deaths per 100,000 people -- shows Russia's rate at just 7.7; the comparable U.S. figure is 41.2.

'At Least 30,000 People'

In interviews with RFE/RL on July 8 and 9, Raksha asserted that Russia's official toll was just one-third of what the actual toll would be, if officials were using a broader classification of attributing mortality to the disease.

"I believe that in Russia at the present time at least 30,000 people have died due to the coronavirus," he told RFE/RL's Russian Service. "That is, with the coronavirus, from the coronavirus, whatever; the main thing is that if it weren't for the coronavirus, they wouldn't have died now."

Like Raksha, health experts, demographers, and statisticians have focused their skepticism of Russian figures on a statistic called "excess mortality" -- essentially, the number of deaths that occurred beyond the average or typical number recorded from the past year.

Early on in Russia's coronavirus crisis, experts pointed to preliminary data from places like St. Petersburg. In May, Russia's second-largest city recorded a sizable increase -- 31 percent -- in the number of overall death certificates compared with the previous year.

Gravediggers wearing personal protective equipment bury a person who is believed to have died of COVID-19 in St. Petersburg earlier this year.
Gravediggers wearing personal protective equipment bury a person who is believed to have died of COVID-19 in St. Petersburg earlier this year.

In April, in the capital Moscow, there were 20 percent more deaths than the average recorded over the previous 10 years.

Raksha told RFE/RL that there were discrepancies between the figures published by Rosstat and those posted on the official government website Stopcoronavirus.ru.

"In general, the statistics on the Stopcoronavirus.ru website raise a lot of questions, I don't trust them, and it's obvious to any specialist that they've all been drawn, forged, fitted, brushed, cropped, aligned and almost completely handcrafted and manipulated," he said.

"But we have nothing else, so you need to somehow take [this data], decode it, think it out, and make a guess. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to draw conclusions based on it," he said.

'An Idea From Above'

Another complicating factor, he said, was that people in some regions -- he named the North Caucasus, the southern Krasnodar Krai, and the Volga region of Bashkortostan -- are sometimes slow to report suspected COVID-19 deaths or make efforts to obscure the apparent cause. And, he said, statistics collection practices vary from region to region, which often results in deaths being classified differently.

"In different regions, there are completely different traditions and practices of assigning codes to causes of death," he said.

Though more recent data about coronavirus infections and deaths have been perceived as being a more accurate reflection of the country's situation, Raksha's public comments to media outlets drew condemnation from government officials. The Foreign Ministry condemned The New York Times, which quoted Raskha, as well as The Financial Times and demanded that they retract articles published in May that concluded Russia's mortality rates were much higher.

And some local government authorities have given other indications that data-collection procedures may be undercounting cases and deaths. The city health department in Moscow, where the bulk of Russia's cases have been concentrated, released a statement on May 13, saying that more than 60 percent of the city's coronavirus deaths are not being included in the city's official virus death toll.

As for his dismissal from Rosstat, Raksha said it was "obvious" to him that the agency itself did not make the decision.

"It was an idea from above," he told Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

Rosstat did not respond to further inquiries from RFE/RL about Raksha's dismissal, and whether it was connected to his public comments.

Rosstat itself has come under fire over the past year, with allegations that its otherwise reputable number collection and record-keeping on many socioeconomic indicators were being manipulated for political purposes.

Written by Mike Eckel based on reporting by Mark Krutov, a correspondent with RFE/RL's Russian Service, and Current Time correspondent Timur Olevsky.
Qahramon Baqozoda, director of the Zerkalo polling organization (file photo)

DUSHANBE -- A court in Dushanbe has suspended the operations of one of the few remaining independent pollsters in Tajikistan, the Zerkalo (Mirror) Center For Social Studies.

Deputy Justice Minister Asadullo Hakimzoda told reporters on July 13 that the Ismoili Somoni district court had suspended Zerkalo's operations for two months.

Hakimzoda said that the court made the decision on the ministry's request after Zerkalo "failed to correct shortcomings," namely violations of its charter by the group's leadership, including hiring people without the necessary documentation and making decisions without taking into account the opinions of other members of the organization.

Qahramon Baqozoda*, Zerkalo's director, told RFE/RL that the Justice Ministry's move to suspend his organization's operations "might have been based on a misunderstanding," adding that his organization hires people by signing work contracts with all of them and requesting labor booklets from them, as required by law.

"If some of future employees do not have labor booklets, we issue such booklets for them. The Justice Ministry has checked us since 2010 and there have been no problems before," Baqozoda said.

According to Baqozoda, the ministry's last inspection was in late 2019, after which it asked him "to correct all violations" and report back in one month.

"Because we don't have a lawyer, we submitted our report to the ministry in March, which was too late as the ministry had filed its request to suspend our operations by that time," Baqozoda said.

Hakimzoda told journalists that Zerkalo could be allowed to resume its operations if the ministry finds that the violations have been corrected.

Zerkalo has been operating in Tajikistan for almost 20 years. Its numerous polls and surveys on various issues and developments in the Central Asian nation have always differed from surveys conducted by government or pro-government agencies.

Many experts in Tajikistan have said that Zerkalo's surveys reflect the real situation in the country and some international organizations in their reports on Tajikistan use data collected by Zerkalo's polls.

*Qahramon Baqozoda is the brother of Khiramon Baqozoda, who works in RFE/RL's Tajik Service.

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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