A birth dearth

The tricky politics of population in the former Yugoslavia

Published on The Economist, November 12, 2009.

OUTSIDE a hospital in Belgrade, two parking spots are reserved for parents with babies. A placard shows a stork delivering a baby that is then driven off in a car. What is telling is that there are only two spaces. Serbia’s population is shrinking …

… In Bosnia, demography is high politics. In the last Yugoslav census in 1991, Bosnia had a population of 4.3m. Now it is estimated at only 3.8m, thanks to emigration and some 100,000 war dead. But nobody really knows, and time is running out to prepare a census in 2011. In October Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats voted down legislation to get ready for the census. Milorad Dodik, prime minister of the Republika Srpska, the Serb bit of Bosnia, says he will accept a census only if people are asked about their ethnicity. Bosniak leaders fear that Mr Dodik wants to show how few non-Serbs live in Republika Srpska, giving him more reason to ask why a Bosnian state exists.  

In Kosovo, as in Bosnia, demography is war by other means. Ethnic Albanians boycotted the 1991 census. A 2006 estimate put the number of people in Kosovo at 2.1m, just over 90% of them Albanian Kosovars. Yet Mimoza Dushi, a demographer, reckons there are now 2.5m people in Kosovo. The implications could be huge. Kosovo gave its minority Serbs big concessions to secure Western recognition, but most Serbs still refuse to participate in its institutions. Oliver Ivanovic, a Serbian government official who deals with Kosovo, believes there are no more than 115,000 Serbs there. Some Kosovars may wonder why so few still merit such special treatment. Mr Ivanovic says Kosovo’s Serbs will not take part in the 2011 census. It would be easy to manipulate, he says, adding that there are actually only 1.7m Albanians in Kosovo.

Kosovar fertility is dropping, too. Ms Dushi believes the rate is 2.2, just above the level needed for a stable population. In 1950, she says, it was 7.8; as late as 1990, it was still 3.6. Even more dramatic is the collapse of fertility in Albania itself, from 2.0 in 2000 to 1.33 in 2007. In 1999 Albania’s population was 3.3m; by 2008 it had fallen to 3.1m (though it will rise by 2050). This is not because Albanians are having fewer children, but because so many women of child-bearing age have emigrated. So much for all those Balkan storks. (full text).

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