Red, yellow, green data: which statistics can you trust in wartime Russia?

Red, yellow, green data: which statistics can you trust in wartime Russia?
Can you believe Russian statitics? Well, some of them. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin March 20, 2024

The West lashed out at Russia with extreme sanctions in the first week following the invasion of Ukraine and like a fleeing octopus the Kremlin immediately went into dark mode to protect itself. Huge swaths of previously freely available statistics that are the meat and potatoes of analysts were classified to make it more difficult to find new sanctions targets.

A huge amount of information disappeared from the public domain, everything from Pension Fund data to reports from the Prosecutor General’s Office. A total of 35 government departments classified their information.

But the government has not shut down everything, as many businesses need some information to function. That has left some loopholes for foreign analysts to work out what is going on by proxy. Rosstat no longer publishes the details of trade data, but it has been fairly simple for analysts to scour the data of Russia’s major trade partners and get the inbound data from them, rather than the outbound data from Russia.

And a few loopholes were left open. In a clever research paper from the Bank of Finland institute for Emerging Economies (BOFIT), researchers used the still available data on monthly regional aggregate bank deposits to work out where the Kremlin recruited most of it soldiers: soldiers are paid at least four times the national average income, so a study of above average regional banking deposits painted a fairly detailed map of where most of the conscripts and volunteers come from.

However, not all the data is off-limits and the Cedar organisation (Centre for Data and Research on Russia) and the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom examined the quality of the remaining data and came to the conclusion that many indicators are distorted, but some can still be trusted. The Bell reports.

As bne IntelliNews has reported, there have been questions raised before the war about the reliability of Rosstat’s numbers. The state statistics agency has changed its methodology, which has boosted growth numbers that have raised eyebrows, but flat out lying has been ruled out.

There are simply too many government and independent agencies that draw on too many sources of data for the state to revert to the bad habits of the Soviet-era Gosplan to be able to get away with it now. Moreover, institutions like the Central Bank of Russia (CBR) and Ministry of Finance (MinFin) are too dependent on the statistics for them to able to effectively run the country to allow for fake data.

Even in war time these institutions have released some very bad news. When the budget revenues collapsed in January 2023 and the federal budget deficit blew out to never seen before levels, MinFin simply reported the figures, much to the delight of Russia’s detractors.

The authors of the Cedar report selected thirty indicators of the demographic, social and economic situation in Russia, and analysed each of them with the involvement of specialised experts. Each was classified into three groups:

  • “green” for reliable indicators;
  • “yellow” for indicators that can be trusted with reservations;
  • “red” for unreliable indicators.

There were seven “green” indicators, 12 “red” and  11 “yellow” indicators.

Red means that the data is either manipulated, does not reflect reality well, or is completely closed. These consist of the cost of living, the poverty level, migration growth, the volume of foreign trade, population census results, the crime rate, causes of death, reforestation, income and property of civil servants, the number of prisoners, Russia's losses in the war with Ukraine and the number of mobilised personnel.

Data on those killed in the war (the count is carried out by independent media), the number of prisoners, mobilised personnel, foreign trade and the income of civil servants are completely “closed”. For the cost of living, poverty level, census and causes of death, the methodology has changed dramatically, becoming beneficial to the authorities. In the case of crime indicators, the “stick system” forces law enforcement officials to distort the data.

Yellow indicators that can be partly trusted include population income, unemployment rate, GDP, GRP, consumer price index, population size, number of interrupted pregnancies, number of people with HIV, volume of pollutant emissions, solid municipal waste.

In the case of GDP, the data may not reflect the standard of living of the population or the “health” of the economy due to its structure (we are talking about the effect of the militarisation of the Russian economy here). Low unemployment due to labour shortages reflects the imbalance of the economy rather than its strength. And the number of people living with HIV varies greatly depending on the data source (Ministry of Health or Rospotrebnadzor).

Greens data that is completely trustworthy includes information fertility, infant mortality, the number of sentences, court cases, the number of cancer patients and RLMS data (Russian Monitoring of the Economic Situation and Health of the Population by the National Research University Higher School of Economics a large and internationally recognised long-term household survey). These data can be trusted, they are not subject to external pressure and involve simple calculations, the authors explain.

The main goal of the study is to “test” the methodology and openly talk about the problems of Russian statistics, without falling into extreme forms of scepticism and denial of the quality of data simply by the fact of their origin, Cedar founder Arnold Khachaturov explained to The Bell.