It’s a census year, virtually, like no other.
Nearly all of the world’s national statistical snapshots this year will be skewed by distance working and learning, travel bans, and other household anomalies brought on by lockdowns in one of the most transformative global health crises in human history.
With COVID-19 still a serious threat, governments and census organizers face stark challenges that arise with the decennial tallies.
Data collection that began last week in England, Wales, and the Czech Republic is, for the first time, mostly electronic and online. Internet servers in the Czech Republic were briefly overwhelmed.
Russia is due to gather all of its data in April for the third national census under President Vladimir Putin, who will have overseen each of his country’s post-Soviet censuses — highlighting population decline fed partly by cronyism and denied opportunity.
The United States is still readying its 2020 census following a Supreme Court challenge over the counting of noncitizens and other delays, as well as concerns about deliberate disruption.
Meanwhile, in the Balkans, a handful of census efforts have been postponed indefinitely or placed on last-minute hold because questions of ethnicity and nationality remain especially sensitive since the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
After decades of steady emigration for aspiring EU states in the Western Balkans, statistical overviews that will shape public and private life for a generation are pivotal for populations with newly won sovereignty or recognition and sizable minorities that identify with a neighboring state.
Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is still governed under a structure set out by the international Dayton accords 25 years ago, is the exception because it managed to conduct a census in 2013.
Kosovo has already postponed its nationwide headcount until at least 2022 in the face of political paralysis and logistical obstacles at least partly stemming from COVID-19.
But from Belgrade to Podgorica to Skopje, three other former Yugoslav republics in a region synonymous with cultural and historical fragmentation are offering fresh reminders of how fraught a census can be.
North Macedonia in March began an initial phase of its census-taking for Macedonians abroad before abruptly postponing its scheduled April launch of data gathering until September.
Serbia and Montenegro outwardly hope to hold their censuses after postponements of their own, with the stakes high for political and ethnic reasons.
Each has treaded carefully amid potentially divisive cross-border political pronouncements with ethnic components that threaten to undermine confidence in representative government and infrastructure planning.
Registering abroad had already begun in March for the census of North Macedonia, which comes just two years since the country was renamed to assuage the cultural and territorial concerns of neighboring Greece.
Counting within North Macedonia was scheduled to begin on April 1 and continue for three weeks.
But Prime Minister Zoran Zaev announced on March 29 after a meeting with the main opposition leader that they had agreed to delay the enumeration until September, citing a surge of coronavirus infections and a vaccine shortage.
It was an abrupt reversal for Zaev, who had recently demanded the census go ahead despite opposition complaints that the pandemic threatened its accuracy.
“Probably some countries can afford to postpone, but they have a census from 10 years ago and we haven’t had a census for almost 20 years,” Zaev said.
The lack of reliable census data, he said, puts institutions “in the position of working in a fog, in the unknown.”
One of the major questions Skopje’s census should answer is the ethnic makeup of the country, including its sizable ethnic Albanian population.
Ethnic Albanians are generally estimated to make up around one-quarter of North Macedonia’s 2.1 million people.
Some minority rights in North Macedonia, including the inclusion of official languages, are dependent on a group composing at least 20 percent of the local population.
There have already been notable calls from ethnic Albanians within North Macedonia’s opposition and in neighboring Kosovo for ethnic Albanians to make their mark on the tally.
Arber Ademi is a leading member of the junior coalition party in North Macedonia that represents ethnic Albanians, the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI). Ademi has already threatened to discount the results of the census if Albanians don’t reach the 20 percent mark.
In neighboring Kosovo, one of the first actions that Albin Kurti took after being elected prime minister this month was to appeal to ethnic Albanians in North Macedonia to participate in the census.
An Albanian nationalist, Kurti has led the upstart Self-Determination (Vetevendosje) party to successive electoral upsets — in 2019 and again in February. Tens of thousands of diaspora ballots, in a country of under 2 million people that allows noncitizens of Kosovar descent to vote, were crucial to those victories.
“Since even with the current constitution, the political rights of the citizens in Northern Macedonia are dictated and derived from the numbers, the registration of every citizen is extremely important,” Kurti said in a Facebook post.
Aiming a statement at a neighboring country’s census might have seemed like a curious opening gambit for a prime minister.
But Kosovar President Vjosa Osmani did the same.
And the very next day, North Macedonia’s First Deputy Prime Minister Artan Grubi — an ethnic Albanian — went to Kosovo to seemingly urge further public participation.
Kurti’s main domestic opponent, Democratic Party of Kosovo acting Chairman Enver Hoxhaj, responded that North Macedonia’s census was more than “technical” but rather “a very important political process.”
We are not interfering in the [Montenegrin] census…but it’s important for us that the Serbian people don’t disappear and disappear.”
It was a clear riposte to Prime Minister Zaev’s attempt to assure minorities that “no one can challenge…acquired rights of minority peoples,” regardless of census results that he has downplayed as “a statistical operation for administrative needs and planning.”
Ethnic Albanians in North Macedonia must “prove through statistics that they are to the Balkans what the Germans are to Europe,” Hoxhaj said.
Sefer Selimi, founding head of the Democracy Lab, a nonprofit organization aimed at “strengthening democratic values” in North Macedonia and the Balkans, warned that opposition attacks on the census could undermine a crucial process that should lead to more sound government policies.
“These obstructions are influenced by nationalism and set us back at least 10 years,” Selimi told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.
It is partly a result of making “the rights of one group of citizens dependent on their population,” he said.
Selimi cited a political narrative that has emerged portraying the opposition — and ethnic Albanians — as beholden to “extreme national movements” seeking to unfairly eclipse the “famous 20 percent” in an effort to get overrepresented.
In Montenegro, which declared independence from Serbia in 2006, a recently elected administration has already delayed a census scheduled for April to later this year.
But organizational obstacles, a lack of political consensus, and implied risks to Podgorica’s authority could imperil even that time frame.
Montenegro’s government was elected in August on a razor-thin margin and includes disparate groups with a Serbian nationalist grouping at its head for the first time in three decades.
The senior coalition alliance of Prime Minister Zdravko Krivokapic, For The Future Of Montenegro, a pro-Serb and pro-Serbian Orthodox alliance, faces increasing pressure from junior allies to commit to a full four-year cabinet to replace the current government of technocrats.
Such a transition could expose political fissures, including with ethnic Albanian Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic and his Black On White bloc.
Meanwhile, because of their shared culture, religion, and history, many Montenegrins remain reluctant to shed the Serb identity. The resulting morass of national identity and politics is sure to affect any census campaign.
And the pressure, even from abroad, to assert minority presence is strong.
Belgrade has long sought to leverage Serb identity in Montenegro’s populace to reinforce its national presence in a splintered neighborhood and boost regional influence.
Even without the census, 2021 would be dynamic. With the census, we should expect heightened tensions and an aggressive campaign of both blocs.”
A billboard campaign during the last Montenegrin census, in 2011, showed Serbian tennis superstar Novak Djokovic encouraging respondents to “be what you are.” In the end, nearly 29 percent of those in Montenegro declared themselves Serbs in that count.
At least twice in the past 18 months, Serbian President Aleskandar Vucic has publicly stressed the importance of Serb participation in Montenegro’s census.
“We are not interfering in the census…but it’s important for us that the Serbian people don’t disappear and disappear,” Vucic said last May.
Months later, in August, he said it was essential “to keep Serb numbers up in Montenegro because then we can say that we succeeded in helping our people.”
Respondents to Montenegro’s census can skip questions about nationality, language, and religion. But doing so risks legislatively determined rights for minorities with significant representation.
“Even without the census, 2021 would be dynamic,” Daliborka Uljarevic, who heads the NGO Center for Civic Education in Podgorica, said recently. “With the census, we should expect heightened tensions and an aggressive campaign of both blocs.”
In February, Krivokapic further stirred the ethno-nationalist pot by backing a path to citizenship for people who have lived there for decades but hold foreign citizenship.
Krivokapic’s government is unlikely to muster the votes for such a change — if it is even permissible. But it struck a nerve in a country still scarred by the breakup of Yugoslavia and animated by its own declaration of sovereignty just 14 years ago.
Back in Vucic’s own country, meanwhile, officials have already postponed census work from April to October, citing the obstacles to recruiting and training enumerators in a pandemic.
Serbia has lost hundreds of thousands of people to emigration since its last official count in 2011, with many complaining of political stagnation, corruption and state capture by Vucic and his allies, and a lack of economic opportunity.
The most serious challenges to its upcoming census might lie in convincing all sides of its credibility.
An opposition boycott of the rescheduled national elections in June 2020, during a reopening amid the pandemic, left Vucic’s Progressive Party with a supermajority that mostly excludes serious political oversight of the census process.
But officials will also have to overcome an ethnically fueled credibility problem.
Around 6 million of Serbia’s roughly 7 million people declared themselves Serbs in the last census.
Minority groups included more than a quarter of a million ethnic Hungarians, followed by 150,000 or so Roma, nearly as many Bosniaks, and other much smaller contingents.
But many Bosniaks and ethnic Albanians boycotted the enumeration a decade ago, complaining that language and distribution of census takers were contributing to an undercount.
It is unclear whether this time will be any different.
Shaip Kamberi, a lawmaker for the Albanian Democratic Alternative-United Valley grouping, told RFE/RL that ethnic Albanian political representatives were still unsure and would wait to see how local elections were conducted in Presevo, in southern Serbia, on March 28.
“Our path to the boycott in 2011 was a consequence of the state not wanting to listen to our demands,” Kamberi said. “At this initial stage, we left it to the National Council of the Albanian national minority to establish contact with the [Serbian national] Bureau of Statistics and agree on terms.”
In addition to technical hurdles, Kamberi cited the de facto disenfranchisement of many ethnic Albanians forced out by violence in the late 1990s between Serbian forces and Kosovar independence fighters.
Decades later, he said, many are still in legal limbo despite being among the demands in a “Seven-Point Plan” lodged with the Serbian government in 2013.
Serbia’s Statistical Office told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that they are cooperating with the official coordination body of national councils of minorities to identify key problems.
Meetings are scheduled with representatives of local self-government and with such national councils, the office said.
“We will certainly talk to everyone in order to remove any doubts about the census,” the office said. “It is in everyone’s interest to collect quality census data.”