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News 28 Sep 17

Macedonia Says Planned Register Won't Replace Census

Macedonia plans to undertake a population register, but officials insist it does not eliminate the need for a proper census – which has been delayed for 15 years by various disputes.

Sinisa Jakov Marusic

Macedonia's new Social Democrat-led government this week tasked the Information Ministry with starting work on a register of the population.

However, this does not mean that the authorities are trying to avoid organizing a proper census, government spokesperson Mile Bosnjakovski explained.

"This tool will allow the conduct of electronic censuses, but that does not exclude a standard headcount. This is not going to supplant the need for a census, as the register has a completely different purpose," Bosnjakovski said.

Unlike in many other countries, where headcounts are mere statistical operations, in Macedonia censuses have long involved delicate ethnic issues.

They relate above all to the number of ethnic Albanians in the country and to their frequent demands for greater rights linked to that number.

Macedonia completed its last census in 2002, shortly after a short-lived armed conflict in 2001 with ethnic Albanian insurgents had ended in a peace deal.

The 2002 census showed that 64 per cent of the population was Macedonian and 25 per cent ethnic Albanian. Roma, Turks, Serbs and other minorities made up the rest.

Based on these numbers, Albanians were granted the right to use their language as the second official language in those areas where they made up more than 20 per cent of the population.

A subsequent attempt at another nationwide headcount in 2011 ended in fiasco.

It was scrapped shortly after it began due to ethnic disputes. The main problem was whether the count should exclude people who had been absent from the country for over a year, which Albanians said was a way to reduce their numbers in the census.

Ethnic Albanians, who have left the country to work abroad in disproportianate numbers, wanted people living outside the country included in the count. However, the EU statistics agency, Eurostat, advised against this.

Macedonia's new Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev, whose cabinet was formed in May, has long promised to complete the thorny task.

Before he was elected he said that he would do his best to organize a headcount within the first two years of his government.

Political analyst Albert Musliu said that while the new population register could help with local planning, from the economy to matters of education, a proper headcount was still needed.

He added that a census should not scare Albanians, fearing that they might lose the language rights they gained in certain areas if their numbers are fewer than expected.

"There is much internal migration from one municipality to another, so in the case of bigger migrations, some rights that are linked to those percentages could possibly be put in question," he conceded.

"However, the rule is that once rights are gained, they cannot be scrapped," Musliu told Deutsche Welle on Tuesday.

A math professor at Skopje's FON university, Risto Malceski, said he was not convinced that the government needed a population register, because he said such registers already exist in the Interior Ministry and in other institutions. 

"I think that their [government] goal is to only show some activity," Malcevski said.

He also believes that only a proper headcount can reveal how many Macedonian citizens actually live in the country, and how many have migrated.

According to data from the Interior Ministry, Macedonia has over 2.4 million registered citizens. But this includes those who now live aboard. Exactly how many live abroad is a subject of frequent speculation.

The most pessimistic estimate suggests that as few as 1.7 million people remain resident in Macedonia following two decades of sustained migration.

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