Turkmenistan’s secret census reports

Without census data, Turkmenistan cannot be well-governed. The government’s promise of unity, happiness, and bright future cannot be achieved without data.

On December 17-27, 2022 Turkmenistan conducted a national census under the slogan “Census – 2022: Unity, Happiness, Bright Future”. The results of the last census in 2012 had not been made public. For the last 10 years, government policies have been designed and implemented without the public’s and policymakers’ access to the basic and vital statistics such as how many people live in Turkmenistan, and the birth and death rates in the country. The United Nations Statistics Division only mentions the 1995 census on its website with country information. Turkmenistan conducted census three times since its independence: in 1995, 2012 and 2022.

In December 2021, a pilot population census in preparation for the full census was held in Turkmenistan. The results were not announced.

International businesses, researchers, and development experts see access to credible data as deeply problematic in Turkmenistan. The absence of data and up-to-date census information are a disaster for policymaking reliant on solid population data. The government of Turkmenistan has an uncomfortable, even antagonistic relationship with data as we have seen in how it managed COVID-19 by reporting zero cases of infection and death. The World Bank has stopped including Turkmenistan in its reports since 2018 due to unreliable economic data. President Serdar Berdimuhamedov often overstates his achievements and avoids use of statistics in his speeches in general. For example, he keeps claiming steady GDP growth of over 6% per year in Turkmenistan throughout the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. It is hard to check such inflated claims without data. Since 2020, GDP growth projected by the IMF and the government of Turkmenistan differ. The IMF projected a decline of GDP by 3% in 2020, and growth of 4.6% and 1.2% in 2021-2022 respectively.

The first electronic census in Turkmenistan

As in 2012 census, the United Nations provided technical and financial support to organize and conduct the census in 2022. The UN and the government promoted the census as “the first electronic census” in the country where “domestically-produced electronic tablets loaded with locally-designed software will contribute to streamlined data collection in the first ever electronic census.” The experts from the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) confirmed that the census questionnaire complied with the requirements. It worked with the State Statistics Committee and the UNFPA country office “to ensure that the census goes ahead efficiently and accurately”.

Turkmenistan produced 14, 000 electronic tablets to be used in the census.

There were two UN missions to Turkmenistan leading to the census in April 2022 and December 2022.

“We commend the decision of the Government of Turkmenistan to conduct the population and housing census of Turkmenistan in 2022 using tablet computers, which facilitates quality assurance, enables accelerated editing and processing of collected data, and permits timely release and dissemination of preliminary and final census results. We look forward to trusted cooperation with the Government of Turkmenistan to continue to provide United Nations support for the 2022 Population and Housing Census of Turkmenistan until all the phases have been accomplished. We also take this opportunity to congratulate the Government of Turkmenistan for its commitments, invested resources and expertise in planning and conducting the population and housing census”, said Mr. Srdjan Mrkic, Head of the Demographic Statistics Section of the UN Statistics Division, Head of Mission.

During its December 2022 visit, the UN mission delegates visited selected census enumeration units and communicated with the enumerators to inquire about technical details related to the field work. There was no progress report shared publicly.

Survey on social media

A survey question distributed on Progres Foundation’s platforms highlights the issue of households visited by enumerators only with paper and pen, and not with tablet computers. About 44% (Instagram) and 50% (Twitter) of respondents reported seeing enumerators recording the information on their paper notebooks with pen (while 38.9%/46% saw tablets and 11.1%/9% saw other than paper notebooks and tablets).

Question: In Turkmenistan, the enumerator who came to collect #census information to your house, your relative’s house where did she/he record the information (electronic tablet, paper notebook, other)?

The State Statistics Committee

Public communication on census was limited to scarce information on the website of the State Statistics Committee. The census questionnaire was not made public. It was noted in the state media that the form had 53 questions. The census form from 1995 is available online. There was no information on the profile and training of 3,000 census takers.

Information materials (brochures, videos) on the website of the statistics agency were only available in the Turkmen language. It was not clear if the census form and questions were available in the Russian language and/or other languages of minority groups. This is important because according to estimates large parts of population still speak Russian in Turkmenistan.

The government set up a hotline for the frequently asked questions and send out a text message alerting to the upcoming census on December 15, 2022. As always, no reports on the public’s questions and concerns have been made public or covered in the media.

The visibility of government officials including the State Committee on Statistics explaining the census process, talking about the challenges, commenting in the media was limited and declarative in its nature. There is no information shared on budgeting and resource mobilization for census.

“We are pleased with the high rating by the Mission of UN lead experts about the level of readiness of Turkmenistan for the upcoming 2022 Population and Housing Census, professionalism of the State Statistics Committee’s specialists, the commitment of the Government of Turkmenistan to conduct a population and housing census in full compliance with international standards, principles and recommendations” – said Ms. Guljemile Annaniyazova, Deputy Chairman of the State Committee of Turkmenistan on Statistics.

The government has not addressed the challenges articulated by the UN experts such as making the equipment available in Turkmenistan a big challenge due to the pandemic sinceTurkmenistan was caught in the perfect storm of global chip shortage and rising demand for IT equipment”. In addition to homemade electronic tablets the government had to buy more equipment with the help of UNFPA.

Public awareness

The government has not addressed and explained why the 2012 census has never been made public. One can only guess how it impacted citizens’ morale, trust, and decision to participate in the census.

UNFPA Turkmenistan developed and published Population and Housing Census 2022 in Turkmenistan – Frequently Asked Questions in the Turkmen, Russian and English languages in April 2022. It is important to note that the UNFPA Turkmenistan website pages on 2022 census do not direct to the website of the Statistics Committee as a major partner, organizer and implementer of census in the country. UNFPA does not address why and how the country was governed without data for the last 10 years and how this impacted “long-term and short-term programmes for the socio-economic development of Turkmenistan”.

What are the plans to make results public?

According to the information shared on the state media “according to Gomkomstat (Turkmenstat) of Turkmenistan, the preliminary results of the census will be summed up within six months.” This information cannot be found on the website of the State Committee on Statistics. It is not explained why it takes six months to sum up the preliminary results of the electronic census. UNFPA provided the government with “over 180 computers, powerful servers and storage facilities, which will allow data from tablets to be automatically transferred to the central database of the State Committee on Statistics.”

“Census does not finish when data collection ends, according to the international recommendations, publishing and analyzing data is a key part of the process” highlighted Mr. Andres Vikat, Head of the Social and Demographic Statistics Unit of the Statistics Division of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. Over the last ten years, the United Nations in Turkmenistan had not made a single public statement calling on the government to release 2012 census data. It is refreshing to see this type of gentle statement by the UN reminding the government about its duty to allow public’s access to census data. But this might not be enough to move the government to action.

According to Deputy Foreign Minister Vepa Khadzhiev, the country is ready to “study the proposals of UN experts on further publication of the census results”. How would that “proposal” to release the basic and vital statistics look like? Do we really need a proposal to decide on it?

President Serdar Berdimuhamedov highlights that “One should note that the complete population and housing census of 2022 is also the response of Turkmenistan for the call by the United Nations to conduct the census in the UN member countries and that also clearly speaks of readiness of our country for international partnership.”

There have not been any signs of political will by the government demonstrating that it will release the data and discontinue the tradition of silence and mismanagement. If it chooses not to share the results of the census, it will further widen the distrust between the government and citizens and alienate international investors. We should be all watching to see how much Turkmenistan’s government is ready for meaningful international partnership and how long the UN will continue playing by Turkmen rules of treating census data as state secret.

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