No. 1 Number Cruncher Readies for '02 Count

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Vladimir Sokolin, chairman of the State Statistics Committee, has a quote by Vladimir Lenin hanging on his office wall:

"A census is not a departmental matter — it is the business of the republic, the business of all Soviet institutions."

Sokolin's committee has long been waiting for a law governing the census to be adopted. Without it such a broad operation will be impossible. The last full census took place when the Soviet Union still existed — the next is due in fall 2002.

Committee officials have run separate projects to limber up for the countrywide poll. Last year, a trial census was held in three regions, and now small businesses have come under the committee's microscope.

Q:
To date, there is no law governing censuses. But even if one were adopted before 2002, the law would nonetheless have less legal force than the Constitution, which forbids infringements on citizens' private lives. There would probably be appeals to the Constitutional Court accusing you of violating the principal law. Are you sure that you will be able to conduct a census under these conditions?
A:
That depends on how the Constitution is interpreted. After considerable debate, our lawyers came to the conclusion that a census does not constitute an encroachment of a person's rights because it's important to the state as a whole. Together with the Justice Ministry, we have found an acceptable legal formulation that will enable us to submit a draft census law to the State Duma in the near future. We hope the Duma will adopt this law efficiently and that we will gain a normal legislative basis for conducting our work.

The law stipulates that it is permissible to gather information on individuals for statistical purposes. Why? Because when we process census materials, we're not interested in specific individuals. In other words, we haven't set ourselves the task of identifying every private individual when processing the data. This person is only of concern to us from the point of view of his or her social-demographic characteristics. So when information about me is collected for processing, there will be no mention of Vladimir Sokolin, chairman of the Statistics Committee. I will register as male, age 52, nationality such and such, source of income, level of education, family status, resident in Moscow and a Russian citizen. In other words, this will be an abstract person, not a specific individual. This is how information is processed in all countries.

'We'll have about 500,000 people working for us to cover the entire population.'It's no coincidence that I have the Lenin quote here. When a census is being conducted, the experience of a particular country is of little importance, whether it is Russia or the United States, China or India. It's a particularly tough task for any national statistics service. And it's particularly demanding in countries with a large population and an expansive territory. Suffice to say, we'll have about 500,000 people working for us to cover the entire population over two to three weeks in October 2002.

Q:
From time to time, the issue of economic espionage arises. Last year, the problem acquired particular urgency after you sent around telegrams to regional statistics bodies concerning false surveys being sent around on the letterhead of your department.
A:
There are two aspects to this question. I believe that this didn't just happen last year. It is likely that this has happened in the past, and I believe that these attempts will continue. There are certain unscrupulous firms that try to get hold of commercial information, making inquiries in the name of bodies of the State Statistics Committee and sometimes even in the guise of the State Statistics Committee management. This practice was exposed last year, and we, therefore, warned our colleagues in all regions that they should be more attentive to such cases and correlate their activities with the government-approved federal statistics program. And when these surveys emerge again then their authenticity must be re-checked with Moscow.

There is a another aspect. There have been cases when, in the larger cities, journalists have acquired statistical information from our surveys on the salaries of heads of local enterprises and the average salaries for enterprises. Though we promise that information provided will be kept confidential, since we gather it for statistical purposes and not financial reasons, on this occasion, journalists, unfortunately, got hold of the information. How, we do not know. We appealed to the papers' editors, but they, of course, refused to reveal the source of their information.

Q:
But you didn't bring any of the employees of these regional statistical departments to justice?
A:
You understand that they can only be prosecuted if we are absolutely certain that a particular employee was guilty. Unfortunately, in this case, no one turned the guilty party in, no one said this information had been handed over or sold, though most likely it was the latter.

But we have undertaken a number of serious measures to protect ourselves against occasions such as these and to make it impossible to pass this information on to third parties. Information security is currently our prime concern, and we're doing a lot of work in this area. We are constantly coming up against attempts to hack into our data bases, download information and so on.

Q:
From February to March, the State Statistics Committee will conduct a census of small businesses. Are you aware of any dissatisfaction or resistance from businessmen unwilling to reveal information about them?
A:
Regarding resistance or a lack of desire to participate in the census, I'm not in a position to say as yet. At this moment, I don't possess the necessary information since these reports are only due to be submitted at the beginning of March. But going by the pilot programs launched last year, it would appear to be true that representatives of small businesses frequently refuse to provide any information. This came as a big surprise for us, I should say. Regions' responses differed wildly. I won't name them — I know the kind of reaction that can provoke. But I can safely say, in certain regions, our work went well, while in others, we virtually had to seek out these small enterprises with dogs. I suspect that this is connected with the small business climate in these regions and the climate of the country as a whole.

We conducted our last such research in 1994. A lot of time has passed and small businesses themselves have changed considerably. They are structured differently today and operate under different laws. Then came August 1998, another serious milestone for small businesses. So it's also in the interests of small businesses that we're conducting the new census today. Our work highlights the role that small businesses play in our country's economy, in which areas their role is key, where they really are indispensable. They must be supported, perhaps even helped — at a legislative level and at the level of the government.

This isn't something we came up with, this is normal practice for countries with a market economy. Unlike them, however, we lack the experience and material possibilities for conducting regular economic censuses. In the United States and Western European countries, they have already moved to the so-called five-year cycle — though this is extremely expensive work. Once every five years, they survey absolutely every business — including legal entities and entrepreneurs that have not formed legal entities, of which we have many. In other words, once every five years they assemble the entire mosaic — not just fragments — but the entire picture of the state of the economy. I believe that sooner or later we will have a similar system.

Q:
Whom should we believe? Highly placed Russian officials talk about continuing economic growth, while certain independent economists disagree. What is actually going on in our economy?
A:
Statistics should not act as judge in this kind of dispute. Our information is used both by presidential adviser Andrei Illarionov and the government apparatus. The question is how particular figures get interpreted.

I would like to remind you that a certain part of the State Duma has consistently subjected our figures to impartial criticism. But we, like the statistical departments of other countries, already have a tactic developed for this. We should not interfere in political squabbles. We must provide society with objective, statistical information.

If we say that our economy has a temperature of 36.6 degrees [Celsius], I have no idea how you will interpret this. One person might say the temperature shows the body is healthy. But you and I both well know that the temperature shown on the thermometer does not always mean the organism is healthy. Lots of extremely unpleasant things can be happening in it.

Therefore, the ass's ears of politics poke out of a lot of things I come across in the press and scientific literature.

If you look closely at our publications, at our annual reports, you will see that we very rarely give any kind of commentary. We provide only statistical data. This is our professional obligation.

If you remember, we had a period when there was talk of the growth of industrial output. At that time, we made no comment, since it gave us considerable cause for doubt. It turned out that there was no growth. True this didn't emerge at once, but after half a year. It's the same in this case — let's wait and see what happens in the economy.

When [former Prime Minister] Yevgeny Primakov's government came in, our supervisor was Yury Maslyukov. During my first meeting with him, he said: "Vladimir Leonidovich [and we have known each other a long time, since he was still working in the State Planning Committee] you are a statistician, you record everything, so how was it that you didn't warn us that a crisis was in the cards in August 1998?" I said to him. "Did you receive our reports?" "We got them," he replied.

I opened one and showed him: Look at all these crooked lines. How should I know when the crisis would come — in August, September or November? This isn't our job.

He looked at them closely. "Yes," he said.

So analysis is a matter of taste.