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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'99 Census Postponed Indefinitely

The Russian census that was due to take place in 1999 has been postponed indefinitely, leaving the government and independent analysts without a reliable source of data and potentially opening the door to election fraud.

Last year, officials moved the census back one year to 2000, but in recent weeks it became clear that it will not take place before 2001. The last Soviet census was in 1989. Russian law requires and the United Nations recommends that a census be taken every 10 years.

Officials at the State Statistics Committee, or Goskomstat, say the census is being postponed because the government does not have the approximately 3 billion rubles ($123 million) required. (This figure is modest compared to the $3 billion the United States expects to spend on its 2000 census.)

But many observers say there is money; it's simply a matter of skewed priorities f and, perhaps, a reluctance to face the alarming demographic trends that experts have been observing for the past several years.

Nicholas Eberstadt, visiting fellow at Harvard University's center for population and development studies, said the cancellation of the 1999 census was symbolic of wider problems.

"It speaks to both the level of decay in the government apparatus and to the level of social disorganization. It's a very significant non-event," he said.

Between censuses, statisticians calculate population trends using information from birth and death registrations. A census f when theoretically every head is counted f is much more reliable for this type of data, and also includes information that cannot be found elsewhere. In Russia, for example, the census is the only source of information about nationality.

"The consequences [of not holding the census] are the same as they would be for any country f that is the complete absence of information," said Irina Zhuravlyova, deputy head of Goskomstat's population department. But in Russia the need for a census is even more critical, given the fundamental social and political changes that have taken place in the last decade.

Murray Feshbach, research professor of demography at Georgetown University in Washington, said delaying the census by a few years could lessen the analytical value of the information.

"The important thing about a census is that it's a big bench mark date," he said.

He said if censuses are taken at uneven intervals and then the data are published in five-year age groups, as usually is done in Russia, "the analytical utility of the census is much reduced."

Vladimir Iontsev, head of Moscow State University's population department, said the postponement also could disrupt comparison with other countries. Most countries take censuses on years ending in 9, 0 or 1, as is recommended by the UN.

Iontsev, who assisted Goskomstat in the years of preparatory work for the census, said he did not rule out the possibility that Russia's leaders simply do not want to face up to the crisis that demographers have been talking about for the past several years.

"Maybe they don't want to look at what's actually going on in Russia," he said.

According to Goskomstat statistics, Russia's population has been on a downward slide thanks to a low birth rate and a high death rate. The country's population today is 146.1 million, while in 1990, the Russian republic was home to 148 million.

In the first quarter of 1999, for example, there were 305,200 births, and 549,000 deaths.

Iontsev said low birth rates and high death rates exist in other developed countries, but there the so-called scissor effect is counterbalanced by immigration, which has fallen off in Russia.

While the high death rate is partly due to the aging population, Iontsev said the poor state of public health has also played a role.

Life expectancy for Russian men is 58 years, and out of 1,000 births, 16 end in death during infancy, compared to 11 or 12 in most of western Europe.

Population trends are calculated and reported by Goskomstat, but a census might force the country's leaders to pay closer attention to the problem and face up to their past inaction.

"The release of the census returns would be a big formal occasion, which might attract a lot more attention to this bad news," Eberstadt said.

Feshbach, whose extensive studies on Russian health and environment were made possible only when the Soviet Union opened up during the perestroika years, said documents have not been as available to him now as they once were.

"There's a growing tendency towards secrecy that's really worrying me," he said, adding that an annual government report on nuclear power he used to employ in his research now seems to be for internal use only.

This trend is particularly alarming, given the history of statistics in Russia.A census taken in 1937 was repressed because the data showed the brutal results of collectivization. The organizers were arrested and a new census with "better" results was taken in 1939.

Beginning in 1959, Soviet censuses were taken every 10 years, except for 1969, when the census was postponed a year.

Feshbach speculated that the current postponement could be connected to a scandal last year in which top Goskomstat officials were charged with accepting bribes to understate the output of major companies so they would have to pay less in taxes.

It's not only academics who are concerned by the decision. Another worry is that the census postponement might make it easier to falsify results in this year's parliamentary elections and next year's presidential vote.

Vladimir Pribylovsky, head of the Panorama research center, said there is an increased risk of election fraud when there is no reliable figure for the number of people eligible to vote.

The 1993 vote on the Constitution is suspected of being falsified by changing the number of voters "by hundreds of thousands," Pribylovsky said.

Communist Party spokesman Andrei Andreyev said the party did not have a position on the postponement of the census, but acknowledged it could affect the fairness of the upcoming elections.

"On the one hand it's understandable [that the census was postponed] given the current economic situation. On the other hand, the last elections have shown that the main violations consist of false voter lists," he said.

If and when the census is taken, its value will depend on what standards the census workers use and what questions they ask.

Pribylovsky said he has doubts about the census' accuracy based on personal experience. During the last census, a census worker came to the Moscow dormitory where he then lived, saw him, but did not count him because he lacked a Moscow residence permit.

"Will they count the 1 to 3 million Chinese in Primorsky Krai [in the Far East]?" Feshbach wondered. Those numbers f or their absence f could have repercussions for future political struggles.

If the census does collect reliable data on nationality, it would be invaluable for researchers, given the migration that has taken place over the past decade.

"The ethno-demographic picture is extraordinarily inaccurate. Whole new ethnicities have appeared," said Vladimir Shapiro of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology.

He said the abolishment of the nationality point in internal passports would allow people to freely state their identity in accordance with their own inclinations in a way they did not in past censuses.