Census sparks tensions across Balkans
Croatia, Kosovo and Montenegro have started to count their populations as part of a year of censuses across the ethnically tense Western Balkans to keep up with EU countries doing the same.
The three countries are the first in the volatile region, torn apart by inter-ethnic wars in the 1990s, to launch the census this year.
Because of the painful history organisation of the count sparked debate and controversy throughout the region: from Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians fear that their importance will be reduced, across Montenegro, where there are complaints that Serbs are being “assimilated”, to Bosnia which did not even manage to adopt a census law.
In Kosovo, where the last census was held in 1981, while it was still a province in the Yugoslav federation, Belgrade called on ethnic Serbs not to take part in the count organised by ethnic Albanian authorities in Pristina.
Serbia, which refuses to recognise Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, insists Pristina’s institutions are not authorised to conduct a census.
Serbia’s top Kosovo official Goran Bogdanovic said recently that Belgrade would support a census only if it was conducted by the United Nations.
He warned that Pristina was planning to “steal” the census by trying to lessen the number of Serbs still living there.
According to estimates, Kosovo has a population of 2.1mn of whom 90% are ethnic Albanians. Kosovo authorities will be helped during the census by the European statistics bureau Eurostat.
Belgrade, which has the largest number of inhabitants in the region – almost 7.5mn – has postponed the start of its own census to October 1 due to lack of funds, and was planning to also hold it in Kosovo, which it still considers part of Serbia.
In Montenegro, where 32% of the some 620,000 inhabitants in 2003 declared themselves as Serbs, a campaign was launched recently seemingly pushing people to identify as Montenegrins.
The national television broadcast programmes insisting on the “Montenegrin identity” of the Orthodox population in the tiny mountainous country.
In response pro-Serb political parties and the Serbian Orthodox Church have slammed such attempts at “assimilation”.
In Albania where the census was postponed until November questions about ethnic or religious affiliation sparked debate.
There are fears that results will show an important rise in the Greek community as many Albanians in recent years changed their identity and religion to obtain residency and working permits in neighbouring Greece, an EU member.
The vice-president of Albania’s highest legal body, the High Council of Justice, Kreshnik Spahiu, has warned that a census based on ethnicity is unconstitutional.
“We are against having to declare ethnic and religious identity, especially since there is no legal and constitutional framework in Albania for a census on such basis, which could create strong tensions in the country,” he told AFP.
In Macedonia, which plans to hold its census in October, the number of ethnic Albanians, who in 2002 represented around a quarter of the population of 2mn, is controversial.
Opposition Albanian parties have voiced fears that the count could be “abused” to reduce their numbers.
In Bosnia the census is so problematic that Sarajevo will likely not even organise one.
The first post-war head count based on ethnicity is likely to reveal the full extent of so-called ethnic cleansing and upset the division of political power in many communities.
At the moment power at local levels is often divided along ethnic lines, based on the number of Muslims, Serbs or Croats living in a community before the war. A new census would change all that.