Kyrgyz Census Figures Overstated

Opposition concerned that latest population count includes people not living in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyz Census Figures Overstated

Opposition concerned that latest population count includes people not living in Kyrgyzstan.

Thursday, 2 July, 2009
Serious questions are being asked about the recent population census in Kyrgyzstan in which labour migrants living abroad were marked down as residents.

Opposition members claim the inaccurate data could be used to manipulate elections, if extra names are added to electoral rolls. Government representatives counter that rigging the census data would be nonsensical as it would make it impossible to plan spending.

Preliminary results from the census were announced on April 20, three weeks after the ten-day count was completed.

At a meeting with President Kurmanbek Bakiev, the head of the National Statistics Committee, Orozmat Abdykalykov, said 5.3 million people were recorded as living in Kyrgyzstan. For comparison, the last census held in 1999 produced a figure of 4.85 million.

Analysts are asking how the numbers can be so high when according to official figures, 400,000 Kyrgyzstan nationals are working in Russia alone. Other estimates suggest there are up to one million people working abroad.

“Given the real number of Kyrgyz migrants abroad, it is unclear how the country’s population could amount to 5.3 million,” said political analyst Mars Sariev.

Gulzeinep Mursabekova, who heads the census department at the National Statistics Committee, defended the results but acknowledged that migrant workers were included in the count.

“A census is a snapshot of one day,” she said. “The 5.3 million figure represents preliminary data…it tells us how many people live in Kyrgyzstan, taking into account those temporarily living abroad.”

Mursabekova said the final figure would incorporate absent migrants, although there would also be a separate table showing numbers for this category.

It is unclear whether census-takers distinguished between people who were away from home only briefly, those staying abroad for several months, and people who were now more or less permanent expatriates.

Political analyst Nur Omarov sees parallels with the census of 1999, “During that first [post-Soviet] census, everybody was recorded, including guests and foreigners. This time, the authorities have probably built on that experience and added the migrants.”

In addition to people living abroad, IWPR enquiries suggest there was double-counting of individuals living in Kyrgyzstan, but somewhere other than the place where they have a “propiska”, the document which records one’s official place of residence.

Many people have long been absent from their “propiska” location, in part because of high levels of migration from poorer parts of the country to urban areas.

Political analyst Marat Kazakpayev is concerned that the picture is particularly distorted when it comes to southern Kyrgyzstan, the main source of migration both within the country and abroad.

“Since many migrants are still registered in Kyrgyzstan, they were recorded in the census,” he said.

“I was recorded at three different locations – where I’m registered [by the propiska system], where I am actually living, and the place where I study,” said student Damir Usupov.

A census-taker who gave his first name as Bakyt said he and his colleagues received explicit instructions to record everyone, not just the residents of a given household.

“We were instructed to record everybody living in an apartment, not only those who are registered at the particular address and those who actually live at the address, but also housekeepers, nannies and so on,” he said. “That led to a situation where the same people were recorded several times over.”

Census official Mursabekova argues that some staff might have misunderstood guidelines that each census-taker should question around 400 people – intended as the approximate workload in the area assigned to them – and instead interpreted it as a quota that they had to deliver on, come what may.

“In 2008, we conducted a housing inventory and we calculated the number of census districts. We eventually worked out that on average there should be 400 people per census-taker,” she said.

Another census-taker who gave his name as Mirlan confirmed that some of the numbers were made up in this manner.

“I managed to record only 170 people in the course of a week, although I was supposed to do at least 400,” he said. “Many of them weren’t at home, so I had to add in invented information about them myself, as I failed to track all of them down during the last three days, which were set aside for re-checking.”

Opposition parties believe the count has been inflated deliberately, and that non-existent residents may appear on the electoral roll for the July 23 presidential election in which Bakiev is standing for a second term.

So concerned were they that they conducted a comparative check of live voters against the electoral role in a selected number constituencies. The results confirm their worst fears, they say.

“We studied the voter lists in some constituencies and discovered that in some of them, almost half, 45 per cent of people, are not present there,” said Joomart Saparbaev, spokesman for the United Opposition Movement, the main opposition bloc. “That means the votes of absent people could be used during the election.”

These fictitious votes could be used to bump up the figures for Bakiev.

“Unfortunately, it is impossible to check the real number of Kyrgyz citizens living in Kyrgyzstan,” said Sariev. “However, it is a sign that we need to be particularly vigilant during this election.”

Omarov disagreed that the results would be misused in the election, arguing that the authorities were simply keen to show the country is progressing well.

“Population growth, with the number of people with access to the major utilities like hot and cold running water, and so on, are always indicators of a country’s development,” he said.

Pro-government politicians rejected allegations that the population figures had been inflated deliberately, saying this would not make sense

Nikolay Bailo, who heads the parliamentary committee for migration, labour, social policy and healthcare, says accurate census returns are very important for the state since they are used to formulate future spending plans.

“Distortion of the census data could do serious damage to the state. Everything is calculated based on census data – the state budget and social and economic policies. The state therefore needs realistic figures,” said Bailo.

Akylbek Osmonaliyev, the deputy head of the National Statistics Committee, agreed, adding that census data on children was essential to assessing the need for additional school premises across Kyrgyzstan.

The final census results are expected to become available in late October.

Ainagul Abdrakhmanov is an IWPR-trained journalist in Bishkek.

Support our journalists