Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Counting is a serious business in Southeastern Europe

The political forces of the countries that have emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia have been making plans, drawing up communication and campaign strategies for quite a while for 2011. No, it was not because of any special celebration or commemoration (although there are plenty of opportunities for this). And, no, it was not because of any big electoral battles coming up (although, again, there were a few elections scheduled for 2011). Simply 2011 is a population census year. And although national borders are supposed to have solidified after two decades of often violent conflict (again with a few exceptions such as the continually, though low key, contested territorial settlement in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the issue of the independence of Kosovo) the census year controversies indicate that Southeastern Europe continues to experience a latent phase of the protracted conflict that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. 

Endless contestation of who will conduct it, what questions were to be asked, and who was eligible to answer them meant that Bosnia and Herzegovina would not be able to agree on a census and this is what has happened so far. Serbia's fiscal problems meant that the census was to be postponed until the end of the year. Croatia's Census has only generated preliminary results and more detailed data are eagerly awaited as they are going to give a better picture of the actual figures of Serb returnees in Krajina and Slavonia as well as their Adriatic communities. 

In the Republic of Macedonia the census was always bound to be a serious issue due to the question of the country's numerous minorities but it acquired additional gravity due to the Ohrid Framework Agreement which instituted specific collective rights for communities that make up a certain proportion (20%) of the population in local administrative units. And as according to the most recent Census of 2002  ethnic Albanians comprised approximately 25% of the total population, local and national authorities had to implement the OFA provisions.

And, given the Badinter principle of decision making stipulating that legislation that affects particular ethnic groups or interethnic balance and relations would require support not only by the majority of the electorate but also from representatives of non-majority ethnic groups whose numbers make up at least 20% of the local or the national population, the number of ethnic Albanians, who in 2002 represented around a quarter of the population of two millions, is controversial - I have already hinted on the interpretations of the June election for the Sobranie.

Montenegro and Kosovo are particularly interesting to watch as the 2011 Census is the first conducted since the two have proclaimed independence. It was not that surprising therefore to see the build up towards the Census resemble a hotly contested election.

In Montenegro, after a close referendum result on independence back in 2006, the Census data had the potential of destabilising or consolidating the process of state building. The government and political parties engaged in campaigns charged with nationalist rhetoric using posters, leaflets and promotional videos to promote their particular preferred outcomes. The outcome seems to have protracted a sense of societal insecurity among the Montenegrin population which seems quite split on issues of identity. As on Monday Monstat released the first results of the April 2011 census  various political parties and ethnic leaderships have been trying to deploy their own narratives as to their meaning. But I dedicate another note on the Montenegrin Census

In Kosovo, the Census is of particular interest as it is not only conducted after its declaration of independence in 2008 but also because it is conducted for the first time in over three decades. As such, its outcomes have the potential of providing an accurate figure of the country's Albanian and Serb populations as well as of the numerous smaller minorities. However, as the country's status is disputed, Serbia called on Kosovo's ethnic Serbs to abstain from the count as it saw in its organization by ethnic Albanian authorities in Priština with suspicion - it has been argued that Priština would try to under-represent  the number of Serbs still living there -  and was loth to appear to give legitimacy to the institutions of what it considers to be a separatist minority. As a result parts of Northern Kosovo have not participated in the exercise.

The Census controversies indicate that most Western Balkan countries have not yet overcome the mentality of conflict and suspicion. Despite their acceptance of the recently  established borders and the assumed security and stability they were supposed to provide Western Balkan states strive to exploit ambivalences on the part of minority populations in other territories and to draw them into their respective nation building projects. It makes you wonder if we have turned the page after two decades of conflict and disintegration.

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