North Macedonia Holds First High-stakes Census, First in 20 Years

Since early September Ilina Dimitrijevska has been walking endless kilometres every day, going door to door asking people to take part in North Macedonia's first census in nearly two decades. Her task may be straightforward enough, but the census remains highly sensitive due to the potential impact on the nation's minorities.

In this small Balkan country -- which gained independence in 1991 following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and came close to civil war in 2001 -- the long postponed census is far from being a mere statistical operation.

Special rights such as the language used in official correspondence between the state and a citizen or ethnic quotas for public administration jobs depend on a minority being officially shown to make up at least 20 percent of the population.

Out of a population of around two million people, 64 percent were Macedonians and 25 percent ethnic Albanians, according to the last census. Turks, Roma, Serbs and other minorities made up the remainder.

In the Ilinden municipality close to the capital Skopje where Dimitrijevska has been pounding the pavements, the majority of the population is Macedonian. After checking people's identity the young woman interviews them and continues on to the next household. "It is going on very well here, no enumerators were refused" by residents, she told AFP. "There were a few households where we had to return several times, but now all is done."

The census in the European Union-aspirant country is supposed to be held every 10 years.

The last one, however, took place in 2002, just a year after an armed conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces which only ended through the intervention of the international community.

A peace deal granted greater rights to the ethnic Albanian minority which had complained of discrimination and limited opportunities and representation.

The census scheduled for 2011 fell victim to political disputes and mistrust with both sides saying the other would manipulate the result.

Since the last census, the population is believed to have shrunk to around 1.6 to 1.7 million due to mass emigration, experts estimate, stoking fears that lower numbers could jeopardise rights. "If this census does not succeed, there is no chance to make people open their doors next time," Xhelal Jakupi, of a census commission in Saraj, told AFP. In the rural area, near Skopje and populated mostly by ethnic Albanians, the process is going smoothly for now.

"We registered our family and all went well... I believe it will be the same for other people," Vjollca Mustafa told AFP. The middle-aged woman welcomed enumerators, dressed in dark T-shirts emblazoned on the back with the word "Census" in the six main languages spoken in the country. She then answered census questions such as the place of birth, ethnic and religious affiliation, mother tongue, language used in the household, education level or income.

A week before the census is due to end on September 30, around 1.3 million people have registered, official figures showed. But in a re-run of the previous aborted count, some have accused the government of Social Democrat Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of intending to falsify the results.

The left-wing opposition Levica party called for a boycott arguing the census methodology was unfavourable to Macedonians.

Its leader and MP Dimitar Apasiev claimed, without elaborating, that around 200,000 people had refused to take part.

The main ethnic Albanian DUI party, a junior partner in the ruling coalition, threatened not to recognise the results if their community fails to reach the all-important 20 percent threshold. In an attempt to reassure the ethnic Albanian minority, Zaev earlier this week repeated his pledge that the established rights of ethnic groups will "absolutely stay the same" regardless of the results. The operation's main goal is to enable planning of economic, social and other key policies, he said.

"The census is politicised" over ethnic issues, political analyst Petar Arsovski told AFP.

Small political parties believed that such rhetoric could increase their rating, he said. Ethnic Turks also warn that if their number will be lower than seven percent they would not recognise the results.

Adding to tensions swirling around the census, meanwhile, some Bulgarian politicians claim 130,000 people who also hold Bulgarian passports are being pressured by North Macedonia not to register as ethnic Bulgarians.

In the last census the former Yugoslav republic had fewer than 1,500 ethnic Bulgarians. /AFP-