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Friday, February 15, 2008

Paul Goble Confirms Russian Government Data is Useless

Paul Goble reports:

Like its Soviet predecessor, the Russian government does not understand how important accurate statistical information is for itself and other institutions in society, and as a result, it both fails to support the collection of good data and sanctions the falsification of even the most fundamental sources like the census. In an interview in current Argumenty nedeli, Andrei Milekhin, who heads ROMIR, the largest non-governmental research center, said that as a result, the authorities in Russia, unlike their counterparts in Western countries, are forced to rely on guesswork rather than on facts. Milekhin said that this attitude among Russian officials cast a dark shadow over the gathering and dissemination of such data because in the Russian Federation, the government is far and away the largest customer and is thus in a position to insist that survey firms give the authorities exactly the results they want.

Compounding that problem, he said, is the government’s willingness to set up what are in effect its own pocket firms, entirely controlled by the government and willing to do its bidding, a step Milekhin said no Western government interested in accurate information would ever consider doing. On the one hand, he continued, officials in Western governments are used to relying on statistical information and survey data and thus do not want it to be distorted, even if their use of this material in the design of policies may be. And on the other, unlike in Russia, they are subject to freedom of information laws. That means, Milekhin pointed out, that few Western officials would want to take the risks involved to themselves and their government of gathering or using poor data given that the media or the legislature could expose exactly what they had done. But the situation in the Russian Federation is entirely different.There, “government agencies are under no obligation to provide such data” to the public, sometimes because it might be embarrassing but quite often simply because knowing that they will never have to release such information, they simply do not bother to collect it in the first place. Consequently, they don’t care how reliable the data sets they do get are, as long as the conclusions attached to this information serve their interests and those of their bosses.

Such official attitudes also help to explain why “many methods which work beautifully well in the West do not work with us,” Milekhin said. But they are not the only ones behind the sad state of polling data and statistical information in the Russian Federation. In addition, the ROMIR head says, the Russian population is far less homogeneous than that of the United States or most other Western countries. Consequently, the size of the sample needed for accurate conclusions is vastly larger, and the construction of an adequate one requires reliable census data. But that is precisely what the Russian authorities, again like their Soviet predecessors, are not willing to provide. ROMIR and other agencies, he said, are often forced to rely on statistics from the nearly 20-year-old census of 1989 to design their surveys. “Of course, in 2002, another census of the population was conducted. But it was not done, to put it mildly, in a very reliable way,” and Milekhin, who has been designing surveys for years, added that he “does not even know whether its result was published completely or not.” (Similar problems with such data continue. Despite expectations, the State Committee on Statistics this year has not yet published population data for the country as of January 1. The apparent reason? No one wants to release any figures, lest the declines they show “traumatize the voters”.)

A second problem arises from the lack of understanding of survey data among Russian businesspeople. Like their Western counterparts, they know the need to do market research as part of their efforts to come up with new products that will sell. For everyone in business, such surveys are “the artillery barrage in advance of the attack.” But Russians in business, like their political counterparts and associates, seem to view this whole process as being more about putting on a show than in getting real information. Thus, they often prefer not surveys but focus groups, and they fail to understand the limitations of the latter form. Consequently, the group that one might reasonably expect would begin to push the Russian authorities in the right direction, the ROMIR sociologist continues, remains trapped in the same mindset as the political elite, a fact of Russian life that makes change in this area all the more difficult.

And there is yet a third problem, Milekhin says, which gets in the way of accurate data. While survey methods in the Russian Federation are much the same as those in the West, those who do not have a good grasp of Soviet and Russian realities will find it “extremely complicated” to interpret them in an adequate way. Not long ago, he said, his firm investigated the wine market in Russia. The survey found that people in Siberia and the Far East preferred and drank more Georgian wine, while those in European Russia preferred and drank more wine from Moldova. “Just try to explain that,” he challenged his interviewer. But then Milekhin himself came up with the answer: “It turned out that in Soviet times, Georgian wines were dispatched primarily to regions beyond the Urals. And over the course of 30 or so years, consumers there had gotten accustomed to it.” If you don’t know that history, of course, you will make the most absurd mistakes, he concluded.

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