It is time for Macedonians and Bulgarians to move towards a political understanding of national identity.
Registering a country’s population is a routine statistical endeavour, carried out once every five or 10 years without much fanfare or disagreement in most countries. But this has never been the case in North Macedonia, a multiethnic country in the Balkan region.
The complexity of the process, its politicisation, and fears over the potential repercussions of revealing the exact breakdown of different ethnicities have left the NATO country and aspiring European Union-member without census data for 20 years.
In April, North Macedonia planned to hold its first census since 2001. But it was delayed yet again – until September. Although the officially cited reason was the coronavirus, the shadows of past tensions between the Macedonian majority and ethnic Albanian minority are still present, illustrating the challenge of documenting the country’s population demographics – especially when certain rights and privileges are tied to a community’s physical numbers.
History of tensions
Traditionally, ethnic Albanians in the Balkan region have mainly lived between three neighbouring states – Albania, North Macedonia, and Kosovo (an autonomous, majority-Albanian former province of Serbia).
After World War II, in 1946, the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was created, modelled after the Soviet Union, with six republics including North Macedonia and Serbia. Within this federation, Albanians who lived among a majority Slavic population felt like they were treated as second-class citizens, so many maintained an affinity with Albania as their motherland.
In 1991, the Macedonian state gained its independence from Yugoslavia. Three years later, in 1994, the country held its first population registration as an independent state, and ethnic Albanians were found to comprise 22.9 percent of the population. However, they felt their rights and representation in the state did not match this numerical presence.
It was against this backdrop that in 2001, a conflict broke out in North Macedonia after armed ethnic Albanian rebels organised around the so-called National Liberation Army revolted against Macedonian security forces. The conflict lasted for seven months.
Among the reasons Albanian rebels cited for the uprising were discrimination, repression of the right to use their language and national symbols, limited educational opportunities and lack of representation in the state’s institutions. In the years after independence, most Albanians felt their country was a place that served one ethnicity only: Macedonians.
Hirie Sali, 26, is from Saraj – a majority-ethnic Albanian municipality in North Macedonia’s capital city, Skopje. She has heard stories of Albanians being discriminated against from her mother.
“My mother has seen and suffered from discrimination herself,” Sali told Al Jazeera. “She keeps telling me that in 1994 when she was in Skopje maternity hospital to give birth to me, she felt that she was neglected of receiving good care because of being an Albanian,” she said, adding “now, for me, this is hard to even believe.”
However, to this day, some Macedonian textbooks still make problematic claims about minority groups. For instance, a second-year high school sociology book says that ethnic Albanians, Turks and Romani have larger families than ethnic Macedonians because of their low levels of education and a lack of birth control. Such statements caused anger and protests at the start of April.
Sali, who graduated as an architect four years ago, now works in the urban planning office of the Saraj municipality. She is the first graduate in her family, as her parents did not have the opportunity to attend university.
Back in the 1970s, the number of ethnic Albanian women in higher education was very small. Sali believes this was the result of both the conservative nature of the Albanian community and the limited educational opportunities available to Albanians in former Yugoslavia.
“My mother was an excellent student and a very talented one. Her paintings hang to this day in the walls of her and my elementary school in Saraj. Unfortunately, she had to quit her education in the 8th grade and spend her life taking care of the family and later on children,” Sali said.
Five years ago, Sali’s family moved to Austria for a better life, but she has remained in North Macedonia. One of the reasons they left was her brother’s football career. “My 18-year-old brother is very talented in football but felt discouraged while playing for Macedonian youth clubs and felt that his chances of succeeding would be diminished by nationality prejudices,” she explained.
The emotions that football and other sports rile up has often contributed to divisions between ethnicities in North Macedonia. Often, sports fans chant racist slogans at each other during matches – a problem the authorities have acknowledged for a long time, but have been unable to contain.
While Sali believes that ethnic divisions are now waning, with younger people and their progressive mentality contributing to positive changes, she says it is still not rare for an Albanian in North Macedonia to face an unpleasant situation.
“Two years ago, I was having a coffee with a Macedonian good friend, while a football match where the country lost had just finished. A group of fans was roaming in the streets and shouting racist slurs against Albanians, just because they were p****d off. My friend was embarrassed and didn’t say a word, but I broke the ice smiling and telling her: is not your fault,” she said.
Back in high school Sali also experienced the fear of being discriminated against. “I attended a mixed ethnic high school and I remember that our teachers were constantly worried about ethnic clashes that we might have. I remember also my Albanian friends who wear a hijab to be also scared of being bullied.”
The overwhelming majority of ethnic Macedonians in the country are Christian Orthodox, while most Albanians are Muslims. In many cases, this has further contributed to the divisions.
The Ohrid Agreement
After the uprising by Albanian rebels in 2001, North Macedonia was on the brink of civil war. So the international community intervened to help put an end to the conflict and restore peace through the so-called “Ohrid Agreement”. This was brokered by representatives of the European Union and the United States and signed by political parties representing both ethnic Macedonians and Albanians.
The agreement urged that a new census be conducted under international supervision at the end of 2001. The results, which were released in 2002, found that ethnic Albanians amounted to 25.2 percent – a quarter of the country’s population of just more than two million. Other minorities, including Turks, Romani and Serbs, were smaller in number, comprising less than 5 percent.
The Ohrid Agreement brought hope of greater rights for ethnic Albanians. But it relied heavily on granting advantages to communities based on their numbers. In North Macedonia, certain minority rights, such as inclusion in official languages, are only applied if the community comprises at least 20 percent of the population.
Being more than 20 percent has helped Albanians secure more rights in the last 20 years: Albanian became an official language in North Macedonia in 2019, allowing it to also be used in government, parliament, the justice system and public administration. In municipalities where Albanians make up more than 20 percent of the population, their language is also used in official correspondence between citizens and institutions.
Albanian national symbols are also used in municipalities where Albanians make up more than 50 percent of the population. Two Albanian public universities have been established in the country as well as many cultural and educational centres. Albanians and other ethnic communities are also represented in the local and central administration based on their numbers.
In the last 20 years, ethnic Albanian political parties in the country have also been considered “kingmakers” – helping Macedonian parties form governing majorities (such as the Albanian Democratic Union for Integration party, or DUI, which is in a ruling coalition with the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia, or SDSM). This position has further advanced their representation, securing high positions in government for the Albanians within their ranks. Currently, ethnic Albanians run important ministries including Foreign Affairs, Finance, and Economy. The chairman of the Macedonian Parliament is also an ethnic Albanian.
But the mechanisms for granting rights and representation are still held together by the numbers of these communities, and any oscillations directly affect their political and social representation. Fears about what these changing numbers may do to social and political dynamics in the country have made many hesitant about holding another census.
The last (almost) census
In 2011, when a new census was due, the process fell apart, bringing not only uncertainties about the updated presence of communities in the country but also difficulties for state institutions that need reliable data to help tailor services such as social and educational development programmes for their respective regions.
Lorik Idrizi was a 19-year-old student when North Macedonia was preparing for the 2011 census. He was chosen as a field enumerator in the municipality of Tetovo, where he went door to door to collect census data.
“There was a lot of pressure coming from the public opinion over the process. Both Macedonians and Albanians were concerned about possible manipulations that would unfairly lower their numbers,” Idrizi recalled.
However, he was able to conduct the registration in his assigned area. “But we never saw our work really contribute to the state, since at the end the census got cancelled and the data that we gathered [was] never processed.”
The tensions, fears and political disputes between ethnic Macedonians and Albanian parties affected the process, with each side claiming that manipulation would occur. The formation of the Central State Commission – a political body with representatives from political parties – to administer the census, further politicised a process that should have been independent.
Artan Grubi, North Macedonia’s first deputy prime minister and a representative of the DUI, the largest ethnic Albanian political party in the country, was a member of the Central State Commission in 2011. “The census that year failed because of different interpretations of its methodology and manipulations of the field. There was a tendency to lower the number of Albanians,” he said.
Grubi said because of the efforts of the DUI party, the mistakes of the past – including the politicisation of the process in 2011 – were factored in and rectified before the new census law passed in Parliament in January 2021.
Apostol Simovski, an ethnic Macedonian and director of North Macedonia State Statistical Office, is a veteran of statistics who has contributed to the registration of the population since the country’s founding. He is also confident that the shortcomings of the past have been corrected.
“The census is a statistical operation, not a political one. Unfortunately, in 2011 it became a political operation, and this is why we failed. This time we have taken all the necessary measures to close the door for the political interference in the census,” he said.
He emphasised that unlike the Central State Commission of 2011, the State Statistical Office in charge of the census this year is an independent professional body and not a political one.
However, the VMRO-DPMNE, the nationalist main opposition party in North Macedonia, which is strongly opposed to this year’s census, does not believe this is the case. Timco Mucunski, an MP and international secretary of VMRO, is concerned about the fact that the director of the State Statistical Office has to get consensus from its deputy director – of Albanian ethnicity – for anything related to the process, including the right to veto publishing the results of the census.
“This speaks about the high level of polarisation that we have in our society. It speaks to a heavy influence of identity politics over the census, and [that] shouldn’t be the case,” Mucunski said, adding that his fear is that “this operation is very rapidly transforming itself into a political operation”.
Although the DUI has governed the country with both of the largest Macedonian parties – VRMO and the SDSM – during the last 20 years, since 2017 the DUI has supported and governed with the SDSM. Their ruling alliance was renewed in August 2020 after parliamentary elections in which the SDSM won 46 of the 120 seats in parliament. Together with the DUI’s 15 MPs, they formed a slim but stable majority. As this alliance works to the detriment of the VRMO, some feel this is why the party opposes the new census, as it may raise the number of MPs allied with their rival party.
Mucunski said his concern about the census was that it would put citizens’ health at risk to register them during the COVID-19 pandemic; he said postponing the census to 2022 would be a rational decision. However, Simovski, the director of the State Statistical Office, insisted that anti-COVID protocols would be applied during the census. He believes there is a big need for reliable data in the country, especially as the government draws up plans for future educational and social development projects.
“Our data is problematic because of not having a census conducted in 20 years, although we have tried to fill the gaps. But you could be the best cook in the world, still, if you don’t have the right ingredients, you cannot produce any good thing,” Simovski said.
The importance of numbers
Simovski believes that the most problematic datasets are related to the number of residents in North Macedonia, as emigration, especially among the young, has risen in the last 20 years. “We are producing data that [says] we are a little more than two million people in the country but I’m afraid that the census will show that we are much, much less than this figure,” he said.
Recep Ismail (Haktan) is a founder of Levica (Left) – a party that made a breakthrough in the elections of July 2020, winning two seats in parliament. Known for their opposition to the country’s NATO membership, Levica is against identifying any ethnicity in the census.
Ismail, a member of the Macedonian Turkish community, feels nothing good will come of it if ethnicity is registered. He says the census should focus on things like education, social status, and property ownership, and feels that data about ethnicity will only help neighbouring countries as well as the “internal element” that is hostile to the best interests of the Macedonian state.
“We are sure that ethnic Albanian political parties would carry on their 20-year long pressure [campaign] to ‘Albanise’ all other Muslim communities in the country,” he said. “We also might see a rise on the non-existing Bulgarian minority.”
Bulgaria has been blocking North Macedonia’s EU membership campaign and the neighbours have tensions related to their history, culture and identity. Ethnic Macedonians make up a tiny percentage of Bulgaria’s population, while in recent years, Bulgaria has pushed to register a minority within North Macedonia, made up of people who would say they are Bulgarian in order to get an EU passport.
According to Ismail, the census could contribute to the “tribalisation” of politics in North Macedonia.
Oliver Andonov, an associate professor at the Goce Delcev University, is also afraid that the census results will be used to further enforce ethnic political mobilisation in North Macedonia.
“What we have seen are political leaders that in the name of community rights have gained so much power, budgets and resources. This often has led to uncontrolled influence and corruption as well,” he said.
According to him, North Macedonia should not run away from knowing the real numbers of its ethnic populations, but it should not give those numbers so much importance.
Another reason why some oppose this year’s census is that the registration process will also include the North Macedonian diaspora. At the end of the process, those who are residents in the country and those living abroad will collectively comprise the number of the country’s population. And the quotas, rights and representation each community receives will be determined by those combined numbers.
There is a perception inside the country that Albanians of North Macedonia have a higher number of people in the diaspora as a result of waves of migration over the decades. Arta Bilalli, an MP from DUI, which runs the country in a coalition with the SDSM, said that emigration of Albanians began in large numbers after World War II.
“Other communities in Yugoslavia and later on North Macedonia didn’t have the same urge to migrate. Systematic discrimination has pushed many Albanians outside the country often in order to survive,” she explained.
Bilalli added that the Albanian community in countries like Germany, Switzerland and the US is now made up of third-generation immigrants. However, many returned in the last 20 years, when the community gained greater rights in North Macedonia.
“We could not erase them like they never existed, many are abroad temporarily and almost all of them keep their houses and connection with their home,” she said.
The process of self-registration for the diaspora started on March 1 and will run until the census in September. Migrants who have left can register online through the webpage of the State Statistical Office. The director, Simovski, said that interest in doing so is higher than they expected. On May 11, the number of those registered from abroad was 189,946.
Ilir Zenku, a healthcare IT executive in Chicago in the US, regularly uses social networks to urge his compatriots to self-register in the census. He left North Macedonia immediately after independence in 1991, to study and work in neighbouring Albania. Twenty years later he moved with his family to the US but maintained strong links with his hometown.
“Nowadays I travel there every summer and spend as much vacation as time permits. We have the house our parents built for us which we regularly maintain and continue to invest in it. We pay all the property and utility taxes just like all the residents. Many friends and family live in our hometown and we gather from every part of the world to spend time together. Our kids have many great childhood memories there too and consider it as part of their identity,” he said.
This is the first time that the diaspora has the right to self-register in a Macedonian census.
“I am delighted this time we can register online and not have to travel there just to be able to register. Last time my mother planned her trip home to be there during the registration. There was a lot more confusion in 2011 compared to this year especially with the definitions of the registered population,” Zenku said.
But opposition party VMRO-DPMNE disagrees and argues that the process could be easily rigged.
“This process is problematic and has shown that everybody could register even inside the country by pretending of being in diaspora. The weakness of software shows the incapacity of the current government to credibility organise this process,” Mucunski said.
The State Statistical Office disputes these claims, emphasising that the process of self-registration has protection mechanisms in place, and that the entire registration process is in line with international recommendations.
“The only shortcomings of this process has been a short time that we had in the disposal for the awareness campaign, as well as difficulties that some might face while filling the form on their own,” Simovski said.
Bilalli believes that nobody should be scared by the diaspora’s interest in this process, particularly considering the remittances they contribute to the country’s economy. “Their right to be registered is a win-win,” she reflected.
Consolidation of rights
In the census of 2001, Albanians made up 20.04 percent of Greater Skopje, meaning they were just over the threshold that helped them gain rights like the official use of their language there.
But numbers are important not only for gaining rights, but maintaining them.
Bilalli believes that Albanians will be able to secure the status that their previous numbers earned them in this census.
“Natality rates have been higher in the Albanian community compared with other ones and this is reflected also in the numbers of children registered in the primary education. So I’m optimistic that this time they would make even more than 25 percent of the total population,” she said.
The first deputy prime minister, Artan Grubi, who is also a minister in charge of relations between communities and minorities, said history has shown that nobody should be scared of revealing the real numbers.
“In giving more rights to other communities in North Macedonia nobody loses anything and the state itself gains especially social cohesion,” he said. “We just want to feel equal in our own state.”