Northern Macedonia is conducting its first census in nearly two decades.
The event is highly sensitive due to the potential impact on minorities in the nation.
In this small Balkan country, which gained independence in 1991 after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and approached a civil war in 2001, the long-delayed census is far from a mere statistical operation.
Special rights, such as the language used in official correspondence between the State and citizens, or ethnic quotas for public administration positions depend on the officially declared minority of at least 20% of the population.
Of the population of about 2 million, 64% are Macedonians and 25% are ethnic Albanians, according to the latest census. Turks, Roma, Serbs and other minorities make up the rest. In Ilinden municipality, near the capital Skopje, the majority of the population is Macedonian.
The census in the country applying for accession to the European Union must be conducted every 10 years. However, the latter took place in 2002, just a year after an armed conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and government forces ended with the intervention of the international community.
The peace agreement gives greater rights to the ethnic Albanian minority, which complains of discrimination and limited opportunities and representation.
The census, scheduled for 2011, fell victim to political controversy and mistrust, with both sides saying the other would manipulate the outcome. Since the last census, it is estimated that the population has shrunk to about 1.6-1.7 million due to mass emigration, experts estimate, fueling fears that fewer may threaten rights.
A week before the census ends on September 30, about 1.3 million people have registered, official figures show. But in a repeat of the previous census, some accused the government of Social Democrat Prime Minister Zoran Zaev of intending to falsify the results. The left-wing opposition party Left called for a boycott, arguing that the census methodology is unfavorable for Macedonians. Its leader and MP Dimitar Apasiev claims that about 200,000 people have refused to participate. The main ethnic Albanian party, DUI, a junior partner in the ruling coalition, has threatened not to recognize the results if their community fails to reach the important 20 per cent threshold.
In an attempt to reassure the ethnic Albanian minority, Zaev reiterated his promise earlier this week that the established rights of ethnic groups “will remain exactly the same”, regardless of the results. The main purpose of the operation is to enable the planning of economic, social and other key policies, he said.
“The census is ethnically politicized,” political analyst Petar Arsovski told AFP. Small political parties believe such rhetoric could boost their ratings, he said.
Ethnic Turks also warn that if their numbers fall below 7%, they will not recognize the results.
The claim of some Bulgarian politicians that 130,000 people who also hold Bulgarian passports have been forced by northern Macedonia not to register as ethnic Bulgarians adds to the tension. At the last census, the former Yugoslav republic registered less than 1,500 ethnic Bulgarians.