By Sinisa Jakov Marusic
After North Macedonia’s parliament failed to meet a Wednesday deadline to amend the census law and delay the long-awaited operation due to begin on Thursday, the State Statistical Office – in charge of the headcount – said it will not send census takers out into the field.
“Having in mind the new situation … the State Statistical Office will not launch headcount activities until the wrapping-up of the parliamentary procedure, which is expected very soon,” it said on Thursday.
Parliament’s failure to meet the deadline to officially postpone the census, as agreed by top politicians, has created legal confusion.
Speaker Talat Xhaferi said parliament will make a fresh push on Thursday to hold a session to amend the census law and postpone the operation to September, but in the meantime institutions remain baffled about what to do.
Justice Minister Bojan Maricic on Wednesday said that while the old census law still applies, if the census starts now, it will be up to the State Statistical Office to decide what to do.
He added that if it sends census takers out to start collecting data, this data – collected before parliament formally postpones the process – “will be taken into consideration”, meaning it will count as valid.
Confusion over the census started on Monday when, just days before it was due to start, Prime Minister Zoran Zaev accepted opposition demands for a postponement of the task from April to September, due to health concerns amid a fresh spike in COVID-19 infections.
The agreement angered the smaller ethnic Albanian parties who said they had not been consulted, disagreed with the postponement, and might block any delay in parliament.
While the government rapidly sent the changes to the census law in emergency procedure to parliament, another problem arose when speaker Xhaferi warned that he could not guarantee that parliament would finish the job before Wednesday’s deadline.
He explained that even if the changes were fast-tracked in parliament, the drafts would still first have to pass a commission on European affairs, where all MPs would be able to discuss them without time constraints, leaving space for the smaller Albanian parties to block or delay the process.
Despite the government’s best efforts on Wednesday to iron out differences with smaller parties in parliament, so that the process could go smoothly, the session of parliament expected on late Wednesday never started. Xhaferi merely informed the media that efforts would continue on Thursday.
Headcounts have never been a mere statistical operation in North Macedonia – always drawing in delicate ethnic issues, relating above all to the number of ethnic Albanians in the country and to their related demands for greater rights linked to their supposed numbers.
North Macedonia conducted its last census in 2002, shortly after a brief armed conflict in 2001 between the security forces and ethnic Albanian insurgents ended in a peace deal.
Completion of the long-overdue census was one of Brussels’s key demands for would-be EU member North Macedonia. Amid the current muddle, some local media have instead compared the operation to an April fool’s joke.