North Macedonia grapples with demographic challenge
Population decline is the biggest test facing the Balkans, says president of Nato’s newest member
Demographic decline is the Balkans’ biggest challenge, Stevo Pendarovski, the president of North Macedonia, has said. “If in the first decades [since the collapse of Yugoslavia] our biggest threat was ethnic tensions, in the past decade it is demography: more and more people are leaving.” North Macedonia, Nato’s newest member, may have lost up to a quarter of its population since becoming the only country to secede peacefully from Yugoslavia in 1991, according to some statisticians. No one knows for sure because the country has not held a census since 2002, one year after it narrowly averted a civil war when ethnic Albanian insurgents sought greater rights from the majority Macedonian population. In 2002, the census registered almost 2.1m people in the country. Analysis of birth and death records, along with tax and other databases, has led most experts to conclude that the real population is closer to 1.6m. “The tendencies are quite clear and no one is predicting that the decline will stop or slow down,” said Mr. Pendarovski, who was speaking to the Financial Times on the sidelines of the GLOBSEC security conference in Bratislava. A census planned for this year was postponed because of elections triggered last October when President Emmanuel Macron of France blocked North Macedonia and Albania from opening EU accession talks. The ruling Social Democrats have proposed to hold the headcount in April next year, but it will be contentious because of its implications for the sensitive ethnic power-sharing arrangement on which North Macedonia’s governance is based. The census has been delayed in the past because of reluctance to confirm the precise ethnic breakdown of the population between Macedonians, Albanians and other minorities.
The nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, which draws its support primarily from ethnic Macedonians, has accused the government of “using the headcount to create ethnic tensions” and “working to falsify” it. The Social Democrats under Premier Zoran Zaev have sought to appeal to ethnic Albanian voters under the slogan “one society for all”. As elsewhere in Europe, the ageing population is putting public finances under strain. North Macedonia has approximately 350,000 pensioners, and state subsidies to the pension fund were equivalent to 4.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2018. Although remittances of €1.7bn in 2019 covered the country’s trade deficit of €1.6bn that year, Branimir Stojanovic, an economist at the Vienna Institute for Economic Studies and a former adviser to the minister of finance, said that demographic decline and emigration are “reducing both human capital and long-term potential for economic growth”. The EU finally authorized the beginning of accession talks with North Macedonia in late March. But joining the 27-country bloc is unlikely to be the panacea for the problem of depopulation: both Croatia and neighboring Bulgaria experienced large-scale emigration after becoming members.
Bulgaria’s foreign minister, Ekaterina Zaharieva, told the FT that 200,000 Bulgarians returned to the country in March as the corona virus pandemic took hold across Europe. She said that “people came back because they feel safer at home in Bulgaria”. Ms. Zaharieva said her government was working with large companies to try to find jobs that would keep these people in Bulgaria when the pandemic is over. According to a January study by the Bulgarian ministry of labor and social policy, 60 per cent of the young adults studying or working abroad would like to return to Bulgaria if they could find suitable employment. Hoping to capitalize on the temporary return of citizens during the pandemic, the government has begun a “Bulgaria wants you” campaign. For North Macedonia, meanwhile, the first step is finding out how many people actually live in the country after almost a generation of guesswork. The forthcoming census will also yield important data in a number of other areas, including employment and fertility rates. “It is absolutely crucial for the country to execute the census next year because no sound policies in any domain are possible without correct statistical data,” said Mr. Pendarovski. “At present, all vital statistics are based on estimations and that is not something any serious administration should be doing.”