The population census to be undertaken this year will weigh heavily politically in the Balkan countries. Updating the demographic, economic and social data will undoubtedly affect relations among the states, risk opening old wounds and stir memories of unfulfilled promises.

Certainly, we’ll get a credible statistical snapshot of our lives. Numerical evidence for ethnic cleansing? Undoubtedly. The reconstruction of the region along denominational lines? For sure. Will it help to match up the electoral lists with demographic reality? Probably.

The census in Serbia, planned for April, has been postponed until October. With money low in the state’s coffers, the EU had to help out Belgrade financially. But Serbia is dragging its heels answering the questionnaire from Brussels, which requires accurate data on the status of accession candidate countries [all the EU countries should also conduct a population survey in 2011]. The country is risking delays in getting the funding meant for the candidate countries.

Computer skills? What computers?

I doubt that the statistics are a source of pleasure to those in power. They undoubtedly summon up painful realities we try to consign to oblivion. For example, the "white plague” Serbia is facing, the decline in our birth rate that is seeing Serbia depopulated by between 30 and 40,000 inhabitants every year. The population of a small city, gone missing. The census will also expose the mass flight of young minds. It will force us to confront the question of why we are the third country in Europe, after Ireland and Hungary, whose diaspora is just slightly less than the population left in the country. Or why we are the fourth-most pessimistic country in the world.

How many people will respond positively to the question about their computer skills? What computers? The effectiveness of Serbia’s educational system in the 21st century can be judged from the fact that a third of the population is illiterate or "technically illiterate". Oh, how cynical seems the question on the “number of apartments or houses” to the army of 700,000 people living below the poverty line! One imagines their rage against corrupt politicians, wealthy tycoons and their cronies. It is good that rural families that have at least half a hectare of arable land will be identified. We will finally see if Serbia "can feed six times more people than it has”, or if we will have to expand the list of imported agricultural products. And what we learn might make us recoil from our illusions.

In Kosovo the census, to be held in April, will certainly be highly interesting. This will be the first real census in three decades, the first following three unsuccessful attempts after the 1999 NATO bombings. Unlike in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the international community insists that the census be held throughout the country, including the northern part where the Serbian majority opposes all initiatives from the central authorities in Pristina.

Small consolation in Bosnia-Herzegovina

This is the golden opportunity for Serbian academicians and historians impassioned about Kosovo to recall that in 1929 the Serbs made up 61 percent of the population of Kosovo, while by the 1981 census the population was 77.48 percent Albanian. Belgrade fears, rightly, that a large number of Serbs expelled from Kosovo will not be counted. The government has thus called for a boycott, as the Albanians did in the 1991 census [the last in Yugoslavia], to avoid “legalising the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Kosovo."

But the delay in organising the Serbian census may not be a coincidence. Perhaps we prefer to wait and see how the census in Kosovo will play out, and what will come of the negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina.

Some small consolation may be found in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the political class has not yet agreed on what to do. Over three months after the general elections, Bosnia-Herzegovina has yet to form a government. The paralysis of power means the country may be the only state in Europe not to hold the census this year. It means we will still have to wait for accurate statistics on the changes to the population during and after the war, as well as data on the destruction of thousands of buildings, factories, schools and other buildings. Bosnians refer to the Eurostat standards and request that the census not include mandatory questions on religious affiliation, nationality or language. They say it would only “legalise ethnic cleansing."

Balkans, in the waiting room of the EU

In Montenegro the census risks increasing political tensions, as it intends to ask questions on nationality, ethnicity, and language spoken. Opposition parties fear that the government will try to reduce the apparent number of Serbs by putting pressure on people not to declare themselves as Serbs or speakers of Serbian. Calls for the Montenegrin Serbs to declare themselves followers of the the Serbian Orthodox Church are increasing. The census threatens to undermine both the internal dynamics of Montenegro and the relations between Belgrade and Podgorica.

Croatian citizens will not be spared either by the politicisation when called upon in April to answer 45 questions, some of which encroach upon their privacy – like the question as to whether "they live in a same-sex union." Fortunately, there will be no more questions referring to "refugees" or "displaced persons". But the populace will no doubt try to determine why only 41,000 babies are born in Croatia each year, while registered deaths stand around 54,000.

The census will be held in Macedonia in April. The questionnaires have already been formulated, and all standards have been respected regarding the questions about religious and national affiliation, which will be optional. The authorities in Skopje thus expect no political problems.

In Albania the nationality and ethnicity of the population will be canvassed in order to settle the controversy on this point. Experts expect this will allow many Albanians to apply for Greek citizenship and so enjoy the generous retirement benefits that Greece bestows on its minorities.

All in all, a lot of statistical truths, and no fewer practical problems, will be brought to light. A snapshot of the Balkans, in the waiting room of the European Union.