Croatia, Kosovo and Montenegro have started to count their populations as part of a year of censuses across the ethnically tense Western Balkans to keep up with EU countries doing the same.
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Because of the painful history organisation of the count sparked debate and controversy throughout the region: from Macedonia, where ethnic Albanians fear that their importance will be reduced, across Montenegro, where there are complaints that Serbs are being “assimilated”, to Bosnia which did not even manage to adopt a census law.
In Kosovo, where the last census was held in 1981, while it was still a province in the Yugoslav federation, Belgrade called on ethnic Serbs not to take part in the count organised by ethnic Albanian authorities in Pristina.
Serbia, which refuses to recognise Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence, insists Pristina’s institutions are not authorised to conduct a census.
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According to estimates, Kosovo has a population of 2.1mn of whom 90% are ethnic Albanians. Kosovo authorities will be helped during the census by the European statistics bureau Eurostat.
Belgrade, which has the largest number of inhabitants in the region – almost 7.5mn – has postponed the start of its own census to October 1 due to lack of funds, and was planning to also hold it in Kosovo, which it still considers part of Serbia.
In Montenegro, where 32% of the some 620,000 inhabitants in 2003 declared themselves as Serbs, a campaign was launched recently seemingly pushing people to identify as Montenegrins.
The national television broadcast programmes insisting on the “Montenegrin identity” of the Orthodox population in the tiny mountainous country.
In response pro-Serb political parties and the Serbian Orthodox Church have slammed such attempts at “assimilation”.
In Albania where the census was postponed until November questions about ethnic or religious affiliation sparked debate.
There are fears that results will show an important rise in the Greek community as many Albanians in recent years changed their identity and religion to obtain residency and working permits in neighbouring Greece, an EU member.
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In Bosnia the census is so problematic that Sarajevo will likely not even organise one.
The first post-war head count based on ethnicity is likely to reveal the full extent of so-called ethnic cleansing and upset the division of political power in many communities.
At the moment power at local levels is often divided along ethnic lines, based on the number of Muslims, Serbs or Croats living in a community before the war. A new census would change all that.
It's a bit of an irony that ethnic balances are still so controversial in the former Yugoslavia, since many of the successor states are far more homogeneous than before. In Croatia, for instance, the flight in 1995 of ethnic Serbs from the self-proclaimed Serb republics led to a jump in the proportion of ethnic Croats from 78.1% to 89.6% (and a decline in the total population by some 300 thousand), this and other refugee influxes in turn boosting the proportion of Serbs in Serbia, most notably in northern province of Vojvodina. In the two component republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, of course, pre-war heterogeneity has given way to homogeneity though the country as a whole remains multiethnic and divided. The countries of the western Balkans after a decade of war have achieved the ethnic homogeneity of central Europe; they are near-model nation-states.