Valentina Istrati, head of the Census Department of Moldova’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) is a happy woman at last. She no longer has to lie.
In July 2019, after years of disseminating fantasy figures, the NBS finally came up with a realistic number of how many people live in (most of) Moldova. On I January 2019, it was 2.68 million.
Google “population of Moldova” or look on Eurostat, the EU’s statistical database, and you will begin to understand the problem. There the answer is 3.55 million. Try the UN, and you get 4.04 million, but that figure includes Transnistria, the breakaway eastern sliver of country not under government control. The other figures do not include Transnistria and the NBS has not had figures for it since 1998.
It was “indeed difficult,” Istrati said when asked about how and why the NBS was disseminating figures to the government, Eurostat, the UN and others that were false — and which everyone who knew anything about Moldova’s population also knew were wrong.
There was worse. As their basic population figure was wrong, then much of the rest of Moldova’s official data, including its gross domestic product per capita and fertility rate, were — and in many cases, still are — wrong. Work is now planned to update them all.
The reason why Moldova’s figures had got so out of kilter with reality was that the NBS had no idea how many people were leaving the country. Thus it used figures based on the 1989 and 2004 censuses and made estimates of the population with no idea of the real figures. Using old methodologies, it then added to its total population a figure for people reported by the censuses to actually live abroad. This meant that the figures used before last July, while wrong, were not false in a dishonest sense, as the NBS were making projections, as they should have done, but just lacked the ability to calculate a crucial piece of information.
Thus, lacking funds and expertise, they used these numbers because they had no others and because they could not simply admit that they did not know how many people lived in the country. According to Eliahu Ben Moshe, an Israeli expert contracted by the UN to help the NBS sort out the problem, this resulted in the statistical equivalent of “drug addiction”.
During the 2014 census, time and money ran out before 41 per cent of the population of the capital, Chişinău, were counted. A survey afterwards eventually managed to rectify this and so the population was then reckoned to be 2.86m without Transnistria. Still, there was no estimate of how many were emigrating and hence what the population figures should be since then and between censuses.
Last July, the new figure, updated for 2019, was finally made public. It was based on data collected by the border police with algorithms working to identify the huge numbers of Moldovans who travel with Romanian, Russian or other passports. It is not foolproof, Istrati said, because it can only identify people if they have travelled at least once on a Moldovan document. Likewise, the Transnistrians control much of Moldova’s border with Ukraine so there is no data at all from there about numbers entering and leaving, but the NBS believe them not to be significant enough to change their population estimate.
This means that for the first time in years, Moldova has what is regarded by international standards as a reliable population estimate, at least for that part of the country under government control.