According to some statisticians, 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, writes the Financial Times in an article titled “Macedonia grapples with demographic challenge”.

The newspaper cites President Stevo Pendarovski who said that the population decline is the biggest challenge for the Balkans.

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, Pendarovski said.

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.

The newspaper reminds that the census scheduled for this year has been postponed due to elections called last October , adding that the ruling Social Democrats have offered to be organized in April next year.

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. Next year’s census in Macedonia will provide important data on employment and fertility rates, according to the newspaper.

As elsewhere in Europe, reads the article, the aging of the population is straining public finances.

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 Financial Times adds.

The newspaper reminds the EU finally authorized the start of membership negotiations with 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.

Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva told the FT that 200,000 Bulgarians returned to the country in March as the coronavirus pandemic spread across Europe. She said that “people have come back because they feel safer at home in Bulgaria”.

Ms Zaharieva said her government was working with big companies to try to find jobs that would keep these people in Bulgaria after the pandemic is over. According to a study carried out in January by the Bulgarian Ministry of Labor and Social Policy, 60 percent of young adults studying or working abroad would like to return to Bulgaria if they could find suitable employment. Hoping to capitalize on the temporary return of citizens during the pandemic, the government has initiated a “Bulgaria wants you“ Campaign.

For Macedonia, the first step is to figure out how many people actually live in the country after almost a generation of guesswork. The next census will also provide important data in a number of other areas, including employment and fertility rates.

At the end of the article, the Financial Times quotes President Pendarovski that “It is absolutely crucial that the country runs the census next year because no sound policy in any area is possible without correct statistical data. Right now all vital statistics are based on estimates and that’s not something a serious administration should be doing.”