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Inconvenient numbers How Rosstat manipulates data to accommodate federal and regional officials

Source: Proekt
Pyotr Kovalev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

The Russian authorities are “fighting statistics instead of problems,” says the investigative outlet Proekt in a new report. Under pressure from the Kremlin, the government, and regional leaders, the Federal Statistics Service (Rosstat) has bent over backward to correct “bad” numbers and bury unflattering statistics. According to Proekt’s sources, the Kremlin and the Cabinet also made a conscious decision to publish official data not only as rarely as possible, but also at the most inconvenient times. Meduza summarizes the story here. 

In April 2019, Russia’s Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) found itself at the center of a scandal after it released a study about the country’s standard living. The data revealed that 53 percent of Russian families can’t cover unexpected repairs or medical expenses, 35 percent can’t buy seasonal footwear for every family member, and 21 percent can’t afford to eat fruit all year round. Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that the Russian leadership found it “difficult to understand this data.” Forced to offer an explanation, Rosstate said that this study, which raised questions in the Kremlin, was one of the most representative and in-depth in Russia.

That June, Boris Johnson, who was running for prime minister of the UK at the time, used Rosstat’s statistics to criticize Putin. Responding to the Russian president’s claim that “the liberal idea” had “outlived its purpose,” Johnson argued that there’s a direct link between liberal values and economic well-being. “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, Vladimir, but there are some countries where […] according to the Russian statistics agency Rosstat, a third of the country cannot afford to buy more than two pairs of shoes per year; where 12% of the population still has to rely on an outdoor toilet, and where real incomes have declined for each of the past five years,” Johnson wrote, twisting Rosstat’s data slightly. 

Bad numbers

The Russian Cabinet and Presidential Administration “shuddered” at the news from Rosstat — they saw it as a “threat to social stability,” a former government official told Proekt. That said, members of the government couldn’t just ban the publication of “bad” numbers: this would require amendments to the federal law on official statistics. As such, they decided to “minimize the consequences” of the data, the same informed source told Proekt. 

Recently, Rosstat has begun to publish its statistical reports at inconvenient times. For example, in May 2020, the agency released statistics on the decline in industrial production against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic at 9:00 p.m. instead of at 4:00 p.m., the usual publication time. And in April 2021, Rosstat postponed the publication of data on the change in real incomes in Russia until nine days after Putin’s state of the nation address (as it turns out, real incomes fell by 3.6 percent).

According to Proekt’s sources, the Kremlin and the Cabinet decided it was best to publish official statistics as rarely and as late as possible: all urgent information (for example, data on inflation, unemployment, industrial production, and foreign trade) would be issued once a week, usually at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesdays, and the most sensitive statistics (for example, on mortality from the coronavirus) would be published on Friday evenings. Rosstat didn’t like the idea, but it had a soft spot for two key media policy curators — the Presidential Administration’s First Deputy Chief of Staff Alexey Gromov and the Apparatus of the Government’s Deputy Chief of Staff Leonid Levin, a source close to the Rosstat leadership told Proekt. 

Pressure from the regions 

Officials in the federal government aren’t the only ones who put pressure on Rosstat. “Once we got a call from a local Health Ministry with the question: ‘How can we reduce the death rate?’ Is this a normal question? No, the Health Ministry should do something to actually reduce it, but apparently, the statistics agency [should do it] on paper,” a regional statistics office employee from the Russian Far East told Proekt.

Alexey Rakhsa, a former advisor to Rosstat’s demographics department who left the agency following a conflict with the leadership, told Proekt that in 2019, the authorities in Moscow, the Moscow Region, and Tatarstan asked Rosstat to lower their forecasts for local life expectancy and overestimate the expected mortality rates in order to meet Putin’s demographic target. According to Raksha, Rosstat met the regional authorities half way (the agency’s leadership was allegedly threatened with dismissal if they refused) and as a result, it was impossible to square the population projection. An unnamed federal official confirmed to Proekt that “in principle, there isn’t a real demographic forecast now.”

Demographic data may also have been falsified in Sevastopol, the largest city on the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. According to Rosstat, every Russian region saw a decrease in life expectancy in 2020, whereas life expectancy in Sevastopol allegedly increased (preliminary statistics said it should have dropped by 0.6 years, but instead it went up by 0.05 years). Alexey Raksha believes this can be attributed to the fact that on paper, the Russian authorities in Sevastopol increased the city’s population by 60,000 people last year. According to demographers, Russian regions can benefit from overestimating the data on population size, because it allows them to obtain more subsidies from the state budget. 

Hiding the details

This manipulation of statistics also affected the data on the mortality rate during the pandemic, a source close to the Cabinet and a federal official who asked to remain anonymous told Proekt. According to Rosstat, the mortality rate increased by 340,300 people in 2020, but only 42.5 percent of these deaths were caused by COVID-19 (that’s approximately 144,700 deceased). The remainder died of pneumonia (a 2.4-fold increase), diabetes (up 26 percent), nervous system diseases (up 21 percent), and “of old age” (up 20 percent). Proekt’s source close to the Cabinet believes that coronavirus fatalities may also have been included in these categories.

In 2021, Rosstat generally stopped publishing monthly statistics on which diseases Russians were dying from, aside from COVID-19. Full mortality statistics will most likely be published only in the summer of 2022, a source close to the Rosstat leadership told Proekt. 

In addition to hiding demographic data, Rosstat is also burying income statistics. Back in 2019, the agency published statistics on the salaries of federal employees, broken down by ministry and department. These reports revealed that officials working in the Presidential Administration and the Apparatus of the Government, for example, earn a lot more than people working for other branches of the federal government (by today’s exchange rate, the former earned upwards of $3,000 per month on average in 2018; by comparison Defense Ministry staff made about $1,400 a month). But in 2020, after the arrival of the new Cabinet under Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Rosstat stopped publishing these breakdowns. 

In addition, in 2019, Rosstat changed its methodology for calculating the population’s real disposable incomes (household income after taxes and benefits, adjusted for inflation) — after which real disposable incomes grew by 0.1 percent (earlier, the agency reported incomes decreasing by 0.1 percent). That same year, Rosstat reported record GDP growth for the first time in six years, after recalculating the data on construction in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug. 

Proekt links these manipulations to the fact that in 2017, Rosstat became a child agency of the Economic Development Ministry and in 2018, Pavel Malkov — who previously ran the development ministry’s Public Administration Department — took over as the agency’s head. Prior to 2017, Rosstat was directly subordinate to the Cabinet. 

Summary by Olga Korelina

Translation by Eilish Hart

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