Population decline is the biggest challenge for the Balkans, said Stevo Pendarovski, President of North Macedonia.
“If in the first decades [since the collapse of Yugoslavia] our biggest threat was ethnic tensions, over the last decade it’s demographics: more and more people are leaving.
According to some statisticians, North Macedonia, the newest member of NATO, may have lost up to a quarter of its population since it became the only country to secede peacefully from Yugoslavia in 1991. .
No one knows for sure because the country has not held a census since 2002, a year after narrowly avoiding a civil war when ethnic Albanian insurgents demanded greater rights from the majority Macedonian population. In 2002, the census recorded nearly 2.1 million people in the country.
Analysis of birth and death registers, as well as tax and other databases, have led most experts to conclude that the actual population is closer to 1.6 million.
“The trends are pretty clear and no one predicts that the decline will stop or slow down,” said Pendarovski, who spoke to the Financial Times on the sidelines of the Globsec security conference in Bratislava.
A census scheduled for this year has been postponed due to elections called last October when the president Emmanuel Macron France has prevented North Macedonia and Albania from opening EU membership negotiations. The ruling Social Democrats have offered to keep the membership in April next year, but this will be controversial because of its implications for the sensitive ethnic power-sharing arrangement on which the governance of North Macedonia is based. .
The census has been delayed in the past due to reluctance to confirm the precise ethnic distribution of the population between Macedonians, Albanians and other minorities.
Performers raise awareness about coronavirus social distancing rules in Skopje. Next year’s census in North Macedonia will provide important data on employment and fertility rates © Georgi Licovski / EPA-EFE
The nationalist party VMRO-DPMNE, which draws its support mainly from Macedonian ethnic groups, has accused the government “to use the workforce to create ethnic tensions” and “to work to falsify it”. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev’s Social Democrats have sought to appeal to ethnic Albanian voters under the slogan “a society for all”.
As elsewhere in Europe, the aging of the population is straining public finances. North Macedonia has around 350,000 retirees, and state pension fund subsidies were equivalent to 4.5% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2018.
Although remittances of 1.7 billion euros in 2019 covered the country’s trade deficit of 1.6 billion euros that year, Branimir Stojanovic, economist at the Vienna Institute for Economic Studies and former advisor to the finance minister, said that population decline and emigration are “reducing both human capital and the potential for long-term economic growth.”
The EU finally authorized the start of membership negotiations with North Macedonia at the end of March. But joining the bloc of 27 countries is unlikely to be a panacea for the problem of depopulation: Croatia and neighboring Bulgaria have experienced large-scale emigration after joining.