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Montenegro: Census Stirs Political Passions

Montenegro this month carried out its first population census since the breakup of Yugoslavia more than a decade ago. The census, which included questions on nationality, native language, and religion, stirred a political controversy in the republic, which is still divided on the issue of its independence.

Prague, 19 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A population count is usually a cut-and-dried technical process designed to collect demographic and economic data in order to ease a country's social and administrative planning. But in Montenegro, a tiny nation of just over 600,000 people, it has become a major political issue.

The last census took place in April 1991, just before the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. A new one had been expected early last year, but in the end it was carried out during the first two weeks of November, some 18 months later.

As part of the process, citizens were expected to give standard information about their social and economic situation. But they were also asked to declare their national identity, native language, and religion. Answering those questions was not obligatory, but even that was apparently not enough to cool the political controversy.

Montenegro, like the other former Yugoslav republics, was until recently gripped by interethnic conflicts. To declare one's ethnicity is in many cases still considered a declaration of political or historical allegiance.

To further complicate the issue, Montenegro -- for years the smaller partner in what was left of former Yugoslavia -- remains divided between those who would like to see it gain independence and those who support closer ties with Serbia.

Language is also a sensitive issue in Montenegro. Unlike Croatian and Bosnian, Montenegrin is not officially recognized as a separate language from Serbian, despite years of campaigning by Montenegrins who insist they have the right to their own national language.

Miodrag Vlahovic, director of the Center for Regional and Security Studies in Podgorica, told RFE/RL that the combustive combination of issues led many in Montenegro to look upon the census as a kind of national referendum. "The census was very politicized. It was understood, actually, as a kind of de facto referendum, since [one of the most confusing aspects] in Montenegrin political life and culture [is that in most] cases, very political attitudes are translated into the understanding of the national identity," he said.

In the 1991 census, out of a population of some 650,000 people, 62 percent declared themselves Montenegrin and 9 percent Serbs. Even before the new census, some pro-Serbian opposition leaders urged their supporters "not to be ashamed" to declare themselves Serbs. The Serbian Orthodox Church in Montenegro joined the fray, holding a number of meetings with pro-Serbian politicians.

Pro-Serbian leaders also accused the governing coalition of preparing to falsify the results and initially even threatened to boycott the procedure. Vlahovic says the pro-Serbian opposition saw the census as an opportunity to seize the initiative following a series of political defeats. "Montenegro is still a very antagonized political society, [where] politics is being [conducted] by two large groups, the leading majority represented mainly by the Democratic Party of Socialists and Social Democratic Party coalition. And on the other side, you have a number of parties with pro-Serbian attitudes and [a concept for the] development of Montenegro who are quite interested, after a series of political defeats in the last few elections, to politicize something which should be by definition a statistical measure," he said.

A significant increase in the number of people who declare themselves Serbs would be seen as a boost to those who support closer ties with Serbia. Analyst Milka Tadic-Miovic from the Podgorica-based independent weekly "Monitor" says she does expect the number of Serbs to increase compared with 1991 -- as a result of years of pro-Serbian propaganda especially under former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's regime and the influx of Serbian refugees from the Balkan wars. But she says the change is unlikely to be dramatic.

"Definitely the number of the Serbs will be much bigger than before. But I do not think that we will have less than 50 percent of Montenegrins in Montenegro," she said. "If we have less than 50 percent of Montenegrins in Montenegro, that might mean that the Montenegrin ruling coalition will really think seriously before [calling] a referendum on independence."

Some analysts said the census also left open the door for some other minorities to redefine themselves. In the 1991 census, some 15 percent declared themselves Muslims, a separate nationality in communist Yugoslavia. But in recent years, the term Bosniak has gained ground among Muslim Slavs throughout the region. Another unknown was the over 4 percent of 1991 respondents who declared themselves Yugoslavs and who could, despite the fact that Yugoslavia no longer exists, stick with what is perceived as a more neutral term. Albanians in the last census made up 6.5 percent.

An initial round of partial census results are expected later this year.