Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Macedonia: Albanian Census Fears

Albanian minority fears its numbers may be underestimated in the forthcoming census.
By Saso Ordanoski

Officially it's just a matter of counting heads but Macedonia's census next month has strong political overtones. The most sensitive question is just how many of the country's 2.1 million people are ethnic Albanians.


Previous estimates of 22.7 per cent are strongly disputed by the Albanian community, with some saying the true figure may be between 30 and 45 per cent. One of the biggest headaches in preparing for the census has been to ensure a proper ethnic balance between the 9,012 pollsters.


A total of 45 international monitors from more than 30 European countries will supervise the polling. They are led by a steering committee representing the European Commission, the Council of Europe, the UN's Economic Commission for Europe and the OSCE. It is headed by Photis Nanopoulos, director of EUROSTAT - Statistical Office of the European Community.


The cost of the exercise, to be conducted over the first two weeks of November, is estimated at eight million euros. First draft results are expected in January 2003 and it will take a further 18 months to digest the findings.


Both Macedonians and Albanians had wanted citizens living abroad to participate in the census, but have been overruled by international officials.


Polling was supposed to take place last year but the Albanian uprising was then raging. The Ohrid Agreement that ended the fighting in August 2001 stipulated that an internationally monitored census should go ahead.


Irena Gjuzelova, spokesperson for EU envoy Allan Le Roy, told IWPR, "A census is needed, among other things, to help formulate government policy. By signing the Ohrid Agreement, all sides have agreed that no party would contest the results."


In a general election last month, Macedonians threw out the old government and a new one will not be established until the end of October. "This should not influence the conduct of the census," said Gjorgji Spasov, general secretary of the ethnically Macedonian Social-Democratic Alliance of Macedonia, SDSM, which now is the strongest party in parliament.


Previous censuses in 1991 and in 1994 were disputed by Albanian politicians. In 1991, they boycotted the entire proceedings on the grounds that there were not enough Albanian pollsters and not enough use of their language in questionnaires.


In 1994, the census was monitored by the Council of Europe and the European Commission. Most of the Albanian concerns were then addressed but it was boycotted in the predominantly Albanian city of Debar.


The international monitors issued a statement in November 1996 saying, "We consider that the final results of the 1994 census give a clear and reliable picture of the demographic, economic and social situation of the country. The figures referring to ethnic affiliation and religion reflect the answers given by respondents of their own free will."


Nevertheless, Albanians refused to accept the census, which found that they made up only 22.7 percent of the population.


A well-informed EU diplomat told IWPR, "We are trying to explain that a census is a technical operation that counts residents, not specific political categories. So far the preparations are going well although some problems still need to be addressed."


Nevertheless, the political dimension means that party leaders have to be consulted. The September election brought a major victory among the Albanian population for the Democratic Union for Integration, DUI, whose leaders were largely former guerrilla fighters.


"DUI is a new and relatively inexperienced political party and not very well informed. For instance, they insist that 22.7 per cent of enumerators should be ethnic Albanians," the EU diplomat said.


Rizvan Sulejmani, designated DUI spokesman on census issues, told IWPR the lack of an established government induced the state census commission to show insufficient interest in the preparations.


Out of 9,012 pollsters, around 1,720 are Albanian-speaking. And of the 39 regional census commissions, Albanians are proportionally represented in 15 of them.


"We are afraid of numbers being manipulated in census commissions where Albanian representation is not adequate," said Sulejmani.


The EU diplomat said, "It is a problem finding enough qualified experts from the minorities for these temporary jobs. The biggest problem is that there are no ethnic Albanians permanently employed at the state statistical office."


Macedonian observers said real manipulation would occur only during the collection of data if regional commissions were weak. But they insist that the overall influence on numbers would not be significant.


Three types of questionnaires are being used, one in the Macedonian language only, one in Macedonian and Albanian and one in Macedonian and the Turkish, Serbian, Vlach and Roma languages.


"We want to approach ethnic participants in the language they best understand," said Tatjana Mitevska, spokesperson for the state census commission. "Of course, all enumerators must speak the official Macedonian language."


One of the criticisms of the census is that it doesn't provide the public with enough information about its purpose.


In response, the US organisation IREX and the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, AJM, are working together on training journalists who will cover the census. More than 200 reporters from different ethnic backgrounds have taken part in special workshops.


"The census is one of the most important operations in society," said Saso Colakovski, general secretary of AJM. "That is why in our view it was important for journalists to understand the whole process."


Colakovski said he had no doubt the census would be successful. He reported a high degree of public enthusiasm, including Albanians. Both Rizvan Sulejmani from the DUI and Gjorgji Spasov from the SDSM assured IWPR that they will accept the final results if confirmed by international monitors.


Saso Ordanoski is IWPR project coordinator in Macedonia and the editor of Forum magazine