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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya Population Inexplicably Swells

APGrozny residents Kureish and Lyuda Cheriyev answering a census-taker's questions Oct. 11. Some questions proved challenging.
GROZNY -- Given that Chechnya has suffered three years of conflict and emigration, many here were astounded when the results of the first census since the second Chechen war showed that the population had undergone a miraculous expansion.

Provisional returns from the census showed that Chechnya's population stood at about 1.08 million -- around 300,000 higher than 1999 estimates.

Since then, human rights activists calculate that up to 100,000 Chechens have died in fighting and far more have been forced to flee the republic. Around 150,000 refugees are registered in Ingushetia alone.

According to the Soviet census of 1977, Chechnya and Ingushetia combined had a population of 1.1 million people. These included 300,000 Russians, almost all of whom have left since 1991, and 200,000 Ingush who formed their own separate republic in 1992.

Chechnya underwent another census in 1998, when it was de facto independent from Moscow.

"A lack of funds, allocated to conduct the census, did not allow us to make a detailed analysis of the data," said Lyuba Magomadova, who was responsible for that count. "But the number of residents of the Chechen republic was counted -- it was approximately 800,000 people."

Moscow allocated almost 50 million rubles (more than $1.5 million) for this month's census in Chechnya and employed more than 10,000 people to work on it.

Perhaps fearing a backlash from the local population, it produced trinkets and pens and printed 400,000 leaflets -- 200,000 each in Russian and Chechen -- advertising the coming count.

It was then trailed in newspapers and on television.

"The population of the republic actively participated in this state activity," Ramzan Digayev, the top census official, told a session of the local government.

He estimated that 90 percent of the population had taken part. "The only people we could not count were those living in places that were hard to reach because of military action or the weather."

Yet even in Grozny, many people say the census simply passed them by. Fatima Rasayeva, who lives in Chernorechye on the outskirts of Grozny, simply shrugged her shoulders when asked if she was surveyed. "No one came either to us or to our relatives," she said.

Other Chechens, who want to be independent from Russia, say they refused to take part on principle. "That's why the authorities told the census-takers to go around with soldiers, because they knew we would not sign their papers otherwise," said Said Dadayev from the village of Shali. "I am a citizen of the Chechen republic, and even if I had given in to them I would have written 'Ichkerian' in the box for nationality." The pro-independence government named Chechnya Ichkeria.

At first, the authorities proposed that every census-taker be accompanied by two or three security personnel for their own protection. But the census-takers turned down the offer. "How could we look people in the eye, coming to them with the police?" said Zara Suleimanova, who was delivering census forms in Grozny. "People would simply not have understood us and thought we were coming to 'mop them up.'"

Chechens who did fill in the forms said that answering some of the questions was a real challenge.

"Take the point 'size of space occupied,'" said Lidia Yusupova, who was in charge of the census in the Leninsky region of Grozny. "Many of our residents live in semi-destroyed homes. In my own two-room apartment, one room is closed. The floor has fallen through from the fifth to the first story. What should I say?"

Census-taking in Grozny was a tricky undertaking altogether. "In one five-story block of apartments, which was not even ruined, I could not get an answer from a single apartment," Suleimanova said. "Either absolutely no one is living in the house or no one wanted to answer the door."

Mainly for security reasons, the census was conducted over just two days, on Oct. 12-13, instead of the week allocated for the rest of Russia.

Ruslan Badalov, a prominent Chechen human rights activist based in Ingushetia, said he saw political motives for the high results.

"I see two possible reasons for what has happened," Badalov said. "In the first place, a deliberate increase in the size of the population is useful to heads of administration in Chechnya: It means allocation of financial resources for 'dead souls,' children's benefits, pensions and so on, which can then be 'pocketed away.'

"Secondly, the authorities in the Kremlin and the Russian military need this to show that people are returning and that means that military action in the republic has ended and peaceful life has returned."

Despite the chorus of complaints, the authorities have already begun to make use of the new figures. When meeting Ingush President Murat Zyazikov, the pro-Moscow prime minister of Chechnya, Stanislav Ilyasov, asked: "One million one hundred thousand people are living peacefully in Chechnya, so why don't the refugees in Ingushetia return home?"

Ilyasov said the census data showed there were only 26,000 refugees living in camps in Ingushetia (many others live in private accommodation). He said most of them could be found homes in Chechnya.

Timur Aliev is a freelance journalist based in Nazran, Ingushetia. He wrote this story for the London-based Institute for War & Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.net).