BALKAN BLOG: Census sparks a political storm in North Macedonia

BALKAN BLOG: Census sparks a political storm in North Macedonia
By Valentina Dimitrievska in Skopje March 4, 2021

In such a deeply divided society as North Macedonia even holding a census is not an easy thing to do.

With the last census held 19 years ago — the previous attempt in 2011 was called off when it became mired in political infighting — no one knows exactly how many people live in North Macedonia. The government says they need an accurate count of the population to be able to draw up long-term development plans, not to mention provide facilities such as schools and medical care to the population efficiently. 

Yet the opposition led by conservative VMRO-DPMNE has seized on the census, which it says is a political exercise by Zoran Zaev’s government, and is urging people not to open their doors to census takers. The authorities have responded with threats of prison terms or hefty fines for those who refuse to take part or provide false data.

VMRO-DPMNE insists that the process must be pushed back until 2022, citing the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic as well as also fears that the process will be rigged for political reasons and will not reflect the real population.

Officials from the government and the statistics office, as well as some sociologists, say there is no reason to fear the census or postpone it, and they have sought to assure the population that the census will be held in line with all international standards.

On March 3, Zaev asked the parliament to hold a vote of confidence in his government, immediately after VMRO-DPMNE filed a draft law to the assembly on annulling the census. The motion was supported by 62 MPs with no votes against and no abstentions. Opposition lawmakers were not present in the parliament during the vote.

Data-supported development 

Defending his government’s plans, Zaev has said that census data are needed for creating a development policy, to identify the regions with the highest jobless rates and pick locations for new industrial zones.

The government press office said in response to a query from bne IntelliNews said that without updated and relevant census data, North Macedonia “will be the only country in the world without real, data-supported vision for its development”.

“Nobody wants such a country as a partner. To illustrate this, no investor would be interested in investing in a country, which has no basic statistics data about its labor resources, market and consumer habits,” it said.

“The state will not be able to plan the construction of schools, kindergartens, health facilities where it is necessary to do, and at the same time to base its policies on 20-year-old data,” it added.

Without a census in the last 19 years, nobody knows how many people live in the country and what the structure of the population is, after many, especially young people left North Macedonia in search of a better life abroad in the last few decades.

The reasons include economic hardships and recurrent political crises after years of uncertainty related to the country’s EU and Nato integration. North Macedonia finally became a Nato member in March 2020 after it changed its name, thereby solving the long-standing name dispute with Greece that had blocked its accession, but at the end of 2020 the country faced a new hurdle — a veto from Bulgaria on the launch of EU talks, due to historical and language issues.

Census launched 

Ahead of the March 3 vote of confidence, the first stage of the census had already started with people from North Macedonia who live abroad and employees in diplomatic missions able to register themselves online. Members of diplomatic missions and their families can fill in the self-registration form from March 1 to March 15, while people who live abroad have until April 21 to complete the form.

Asked about the possibility of postponement following the opposition pressure, the government press office said that the census will be held as scheduled. The government is convinced that North Macedonia will have a successful census.

“All institutions are ready to guarantee that the process will be conducted according to the highest international standards and with protection measures in place due to the pandemic,” the press office said in an e-mailed statement sent to bne IntelliNews

The statistics office recently announced a public call to hire about 6,000 census takers. The government will use a combined census method based on a combination of field data and data from the standard statistical database obtained from existing registers by using ID numbers. For the first time, census takers will use laptops while collecting field data instead of paper questionnaires.

The census will enumerate people, households and homes. It will provide data on the number of residents, the number of non-residents and total size of the population.

A sociologist from North Macedonia, who asked to be identified only by his initials, S.N., told bne IntelliNews that April is the most suitable month for this type of operation for many reasons related to the methodology. “But if we enter the labyrinth of party manipulations then the range of possible dates is huge and endless. There is no real reason for the delay and any calculations with dates will only confirm there is desire for manipulation and will certainly affect the confidence in this statistical operation,” he said.

S.N. admitted that unfortunately due to a combination of circumstances, — mostly the extreme partisanship of society — an atmosphere of collective fear has been created. “Collective deception and not accepting the truth has become a reality to such an extent that the logic of rational reasoning is completely lost,” he said, adding that in this context, people are forgetting about the basic functions of the census.

Tough penalties for boycotts and false data

The government’s press office told bne IntelliNews that boycotting the census is “not an option”, and every citizen should contribute to the process by providing data, which is important for the government to make its strategic development plans.

“We point out that according to the census law, inciting a boycott of the census is a criminal offence. Those who refuse to be enumerated will be subject to misdemeanour proceedings, and face fines of up to €300,” the press office said.

After programmers found flaws in the application people abroad are using for self-registration, the director of the statistics office, Apostol Simovski, said that people could face three years in prison for entering false data.

“Some may register and think they managed to enter false data, but in fact the system itself will show that the data is not valid. We will register such cases as a deliberate intrusion into the application,” Simovski stated.

“The statistics office is an institution with a long tradition and capacities that are supported by technical assistance from the EU and other donors. The methodology presented is completely appropriate and there is no doubt that it’s in line with the EU/international standards,” sociologist S.N. said. He described the public suspicion that something is hidden behind the methodology as “pathological”.

Fears of being less

“The forthcoming census will confront us with our greatest fears. But these are not fears of the 'others', but of how many there are in the country now," President Stevo Pendarovski was cited by DW.

According to unofficial data, about 500,000 people left the country in the last two decades, which is over 20% of the estimated population of nearly 2.1mn. According to the census in 2020, the population totalled 2.02mn, of which the majority of 64.2% were Macedonians, 25.2% were ethnic Albanians, 3.9% Turks, 2.7% Romani people and 1.8% Serbs. Other communities were below 1%.

North Macedonia is forecast to lose at least another 10% of its population by 2050, while the percentage of people over the age of 65 will rise to 25%.

Many of those who left the country managed to do so after neighbouring Bulgaria started to offer Bulgarian passports for people from Macedonia. With a passport from an EU member they can work elsewhere in Europe.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zakharieva recently said that more than 100,000 citizens from North Macedonia also have Bulgarian citizenship and their rights should be protected, deepening the rift between Sofia and Skopje. In February, the Ivan Mihajlov Cultural Centre in Bitola, North Macedonia, asked the authorities in Sofia to allow citizens of North Macedonia who declare themselves to be Bulgarians in the upcoming April census to obtain Bulgarian citizenship in a shortened procedure by submitting a photocopy of their declaration. 

Thus, the claim that the census can be used for political manoeuvres is not a complete lie — although the authorities in North Macedonia have said people won’t be allowed to copy census forms.

In the previous census in 2002, only 1,417 people declared themselves to be Bulgarians, or 0.07% of the total population, according to

Opposition doubts and obstructions

VMRO-DPMNE started collecting signatures on February 20 in an attempt to force the government to cancel plans for the April census. After collecting over 100,000 signatures the party submitted its draft law to the parliament to annul the census on March 3.

A group of people have also formed a national initiative "I do not open the door", urging citizens to block the process by refusing to let the census takers into their homes.

They are convinced that the census will be falsified, talking of a possible conspiracy between Zaev and Ali Ahmeti, leader of the junior ruling party the ethnic Albanian Democratic Union of Integration (DUI), and claiming the percentage of ethnic Albanians in the country has been determined in advance.

They are concerned the census will show a higher number of ethnic Albanians than previously estimated, which could give them more rights. The Ohrid agreement, concluded in 2001, includes a provision that any language spoken by more than 20% of the population becomes an official language alongside the Macedonian language at the municipal level. In 2018, Albanian became the second official language in the country.

Deputy Prime Minister Artan Grubi from the DUI has called on Albanian emigrants to mobilise and to register themselves in large numbers, sparking claims by VMRO-DPMNE that the government plans to hold the census as a political, not a statistical operation.

“It is clear to the public that this census aims to satisfy the needs of certain ethnic communities by [the ruling party] SDSM and PM Zaev,” VMRO-DPMNE’s deputy head and MP Aleksandar Nikoloski said. He claims that in return, the SDSM will get support from ethnic parties to pass key laws in the parliament, where it has a fragile majority.

“VMRO-DPMNE is not against the census, but it is against a fake and rigged census,” underlined Nikoloski.

The Synod, the highest body of the Macedonian Orthodox Church, also join the calls for the census to be postponed, saying that the epidemiological situation in the country is not good. The number of new infections started to increase in recent weeks when the British variant of coronavirus arrived in the country.

bne IntelliNews talked to some people to take the pulse of the general opinion about the census and the most of them said that despite the opposition obstructions the government has launched the process and it is now a done deal. 

“VMRO-DPMNE is opposing everything that the government is doing, even the processes, which are positive for the society. The process is needed and there is no excuse for the obstruction,” a 53-year-old woman from Skopje told bne IntelliNews.