These days in Serbia the census of population, households and dwellings starts with some 46,000 enumerators who will trawl the country during the next two weeks. The Serbian census is part of a Europe-wide project to collect demographic and sociological data. Like nearly everything else in public life, the census as well is affected by those problems which make a kind of Leitmotiv of regional politics: Serbia, of course, cannot include the Albanian population in Kosovo into its census, while the Kosovar census will not count the Serbs living North of the river Ibar.
Ambassador Vincent Degert, Head of Delegation of the European Union to Serbia has announced that “it was agreed with the Serbian Government to conduct the census in the northern part of Kosovo and Metohia with support of the UN Office for Project Services (UNOPS)”. In this case, then, the usual regional problems will be swept aside because, at the end of the process, all the data will anyhow be added up somewhere in Brussels or Luxembourg. And since computers are perfect at basic arithmetics, the fragmented data arriving in Brussels will be neatly summed-up in order to get a reliable and detailed statistical overview.
With the usual problems set aside, other questions have been raised during the preparation of the census. These questions relate to Article 4 of the Serbian Law on the census of population, households and dwellings, which lists all the data citizens should provide, including information about citizenship, ethnicity, mother tongue and religion. At first glance these questions would seem to pertain to the form and structure of the questionnaires used by the enumerators, but very quickly we realize that, once again, it’s about the essentials. Here, it’s never just about statistics.
These questions have been determined to be “sensitive”. We learn, again from the web-site of the Delegation of the European Union to Serbia, that they should be “open-ended and each citizen can provide any answer they like to these questions or choose to leave them open.” Yet, while religion is a field that may be left open, in case you are convinced that you don’t have one, ethnicity is not. Ethnicity though really is an area with all kinds of “sensitive” aspects, questions and problems. A useful example of this enigmatic phenomenon that’s worth keeping in mind can be found in Germany, where nearly everybody would agree that “Bavarian” is an ethnic attribute, while being “Prussian” is not considered so – it, rather, is understood to mean belonging to a particular civilization.
When it is about ethnicity in Serbia, it’s of course about the minorities, i.e. Roma, Romanians, Ruthenians, Slovaks, Hungarians, Albanians, Jews…. But when public debate about the census started in 2010 (the census was originally scheduled for spring 2011, but was postponed to October because of “sensitive” questions), all of a sudden a new and completely unexpected minority appeared: the Yugoslavs. So unexpected was their appearance (should we call it a resurrection?) that in the already printed questionnaires no checkbox has been provided for that ethnic category.
The question is even more serious because identifying oneself as “Yugoslav” means an explicit commitment to a particular political position, and therefore those Yugoslavs cannot be satisfied with just leaving the question for ethnicity open and unanswered. This is why they have strongly demanded that the state print new questionnaires in which the option “Yugoslav” will be explicit among all those other ethnic attributions and identities, alongside Hungarian, Albanian, Roma… and, of course, Serbian.
Questionnaires for censuses conducted in former Yugoslavia always offered “Yugoslav” as the appropriate answer for those people who preferred not to choose a specific nationality. Their number increased from 1.7 % in 1961 to 5.4 % in 1981. In the 1971 census the average age of persons identifying themselves as Croats or Serbs was 31, while those identifying themselves as Yugoslavs were, on average, 20 years of age. In the same census 35% of the declared Croats and 51% of the declared Serbs worked in the agricultural sector, while this was the case with only 8% of the Yugoslavs. 10% Croats and 17.3 % Serbs were illiterate, compared to only 3.4% of the Yugoslavs. 3.3% of Croats and 3.5 % of Serbs had higher education, compared to 10% of the Yugoslavs.
Sociologically it is obvious still today that Yugoslav identity is mainly claimed by people of the over-50 generation, i.e. those who were approximately 20 years age in 1971. Yet, Yugoslav identity cannot be explained merely as a specifically Serbian version of nostalgia. In continuity with the data above most of those people are still part of the highly educated social elite; many of them were strongly engaged in the anti-Milošević opposition. Their refusal of identifying themselves as Serbs can neither be motivated by a rejection of responsibility for recent Serbian history, because it was mainly those Yugoslavs who, from the very beginning of the Milošević period, were aware of forthcoming catastrophes and their source. And if being Serbian would be perceived by them as just some kind of provincialism, would it be worthwhile to start a political fight against a statistical questionnaire? There ought to be much more driving these ethnic Yugoslavs.
But what is in fact driving them? It’s perhaps one of the questions a foreigner should better not try to answer. To understand these things you must, according to a Chinese saying, eat at least six big bags of salt with them. It is, nevertheless, interesting enough to note that the original Serbian questionnaire in 2011 asks for “nacionalna pripatnost” (national belonging), but the official English translation is “ethnicity”. It looks like an unnecessary synonym given that we can literally translate “nacionalna” with “national” instead of “ethnic”. Based on this, it already becomes more straightforward to understand the Yugoslav position, because it is not at all an ethnic but a national attribution.
Being Yugoslav then would in fact mean to overcome (better: to have overcome) ethnic fragmentation of the society in favour of the common nation comprising multiple ethnic entities. Perhaps, claiming to be Yugoslav must be interpreted as a call for a particular type of egalité – namely equality inside the nation as equality beyond ethnic differences.
Referring again to the German example mentioned above, we might better understand the Yugoslav phenomenon in Serbia, if we compare, on one side Bavarians and Swabians with Hungarians and Albanians, on the one other side the Prussians with the Yugoslavs. The latter rather want to represent a civilization; the former prefer an ethnic collective.
Once in the University of Munich the Bavarian Minister for culture delivered a speech where he spoke about the Sudeten Germans, who were expelled from Czechoslovakia after 1945 and mainly settled in Bavaria, as “the fifth tribe of the Bavarians”. But this is already another case of confusion….