North Macedonia’s long awaited and disputed census results were finally announced on March 30, leaving almost every ethnic group unpleased, including the country’s third largest ethnic group, Turks.
According to the 2021 census results, the country has lost nearly 10 percent of its population over the last two decades, mostly due to trends also experienced by other Balkan countries such as emigration, aging populations, and decreasing birth rates. North Macedonia now has a total population of 1,836 million, 185,000 fewer than in 2002. Census results also show that 58.4 percent of the population is ethnic Macedonian, 24.3 percent ethnic Albanian, 3.8 percent ethnic Turk, 2.5 percent Roma, and 1.3 percent ethnic Serb. There are also smaller minorities of Bosniaks, Vlachs, Torbesh (Macedonian Muslims), and Bulgarians.
Ethnic Turks’ disappointment
The census results made very few happy in a country in which almost all ethnic groups had claimed higher numbers and percentages over the years, the Turkish minority included. Backed by the Turkish government in Ankara, a significant campaign was launched to register as many ethnic Turks as possible with the census. Aside from Turkey’s government, Turkish NGOs in North Macedonia, Turkish diaspora NGOs in Turkey, and politicians in both countries organized to this end. One of those who urged Macedonian Turks to register with the census was Speaker of Turkey’s Parliament Mustafa Sentop, who just so happens to originally hail from North Macedonia.
Organizers claimed that Macedonia’s Turks comprised a minimum of 6 percent of the country – a claim that aimed to increase the linguistic and political representation of ethnic Turks at the local and national levels. The National Coordinative Body for the Census of Turkish People in North Macedonia, a body that unites Turkish NGOs, political parties, and community leaders, dismissed the results of the census.
“We deem the published numbers and percentage of Turks unrealistic, and as such we are not going to accept the census results. The rights of the Turkish people, who are among the state-building communities in the Republic of North Macedonia, have been violated”, the Coordinative Body told Balkan Insight.
Ethnic Turkish leaders complained that the Turkish population was insufficiently informed about the census and its processes, and that problems and deficiencies existed on the Turkish language forms.
Erdogan’s long arm not long enough
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which has been pursuing a pro-active foreign policy in the Balkans, echoed the Turkish minority’s claims with respect to North Macedonia’s census.
Spokesperson of the Turkish Foreign Ministry Tanju Bilgic told reporters on 31 March that there were many doubts as to the number of Turks expressed by the census. “The representatives of the Turkish community in the country had made various calls during the process that the census should be conducted fairly, transparently, and without causing doubt. The results of the census demonstrated that those calls, unfortunately, had been ignored”, Bilgic said, adding that Turkey supports the “legitimate” demands of North Macedonia’s ethnic Turkish community.
Turkey’s efforts to increase the showing of ethnic Turks in North Macedonia’s census was far from just rhetorical. Before and during the census, Turkey’s government and other state institutions offered full support to the campaign to boost ethnic Turks’ numbers. Several rallies were organized in North Macedonia and Turkey, and attended by Turkish government and state officials. During these events, Macedonia’s ethnic Turks and dual North Macedonian-Turkish citizens were urged to register with the census.
According to media reports and sources in North Macedonia, several Turkish NGOs financed and supported by the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) distributed food kits and promised financial aid and scholarships to North Macedonia’s ethnic Torbesh, Bosniak, Albanian, and Roma minorities in exchange for them registering themselves as Turks with the census. The same sources also suggest that this pressure left a bad taste in many communities’ mouths, even leading some Turks to boycott the census. The final results of the census show that the Ankara-backed campaign failed and that ethnic Turks once again constitute less than 4 percent of the country’s population.
One third of the country is Muslim
In the end, it is safe to say that the country’s first census in 20 years is far from solving the country’s ethnic disputes over representation; and it should not be forgotten that 132,269 people refused to take part in the headcount. Those who boycotted the census are mostly believed to be ethnic Albanians.
Despite the fact that Albanian and other Muslim groups remain more or less the same in number, their percentage of the total population actually increased. According to their religious affiliations, 46.14 percent identified as Orthodox, 32.17 percent as Muslim, and 0.37 percent as Catholic. In other words, every third person in this small and ethnically and religiously diverse country is Muslim.
Even though much of the debate focused on irregularities and the proportions of ethnic communities, the headcount showed that North Macedonia – like other countries in the region – is facing a demographic crisis. Emigration, aging populations, and rural immigration to urban centers are largely to blame for the some 207 settlements and villages in the country that now stand abandoned.
Still, the high expectations and generous support of Ankara led to no discernable change for Macedonia’s Turkish community. Mixed ethnic identities, inter-ethnic Muslim marriages, and linguistic and bureaucratic challenges may have proven too great an obstacle for campaigners to overcome.
This article was originally published on PolitikYol website in Turkish language.