Instead of Statistics: Montenegro Grapples with Unofficial Census Forecasts, Conspiracy Theories, and Historical Revisionism

Snowing, Freepik

By: Darvin Murić

Preliminary results from Montenegro’s latest census reveal significant demographic shifts, including a notable exodus from the north and a surge in immigration. While the census showed a stark drop of twenty thousand residents in the northern region over the past decade, controversy swirls around delayed data on sensitive topics like religion, nationality, and language—areas ripe with potential for disinformation. Amidst administrative delays and political resignations that have hindered the release of full census details, speculation and conspiracy theories proliferate, casting doubts on the integrity of the data and fueling divisive narratives in both Montenegrin and Serbian media. As Montenegro confronts these changes, the obscured truth behind the figures is mired in accusations of historical misrepresentation and contentious media projections.

The census remains a contentious issue in Montenegro. Initially scheduled for 2021, it was held in December 2023 after four postponements due to political tensions. As of the end of April 2024, some results have yet to be released. Although preliminary data indicates a 2% population increase overall, largely attributed to immigration, the northern region tells a different story, showing a significant decline of twenty thousand inhabitants over the past ten years due to emigration.

These figures represent the more straightforward aspects of the census results. However, the process has not been without its complications. MONSTAT, the Statistical Office of Montenegro, has faced criticism for the lack of clarity in the process and the counting of individuals. Following the initial report, over 40,000 additional citizens were included in the census count. More controversially, data on the three “key” questions—religion, nationality, and language—remain unpublished. The release of this sensitive information has been delayed, as the opposition and the government have agreed to publish these results later, once they are verified by software.

But that has not been without delays either—the tender for the procurement of the said software has been postponed since Boris Marković, from the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro (DPS) and co-chair of the Commission for monitoring the software’s establishment, resigned. A new opposition representative was only elected in late April.

These ongoing delays and postponements have fueled conspiracy theories. For instance, articles on the IN4S and Pecat online portals have speculated that MONSTAT, and even the European Commission (EC)—which was inexplicably described as a mediator in the census process—might be manipulating or withholding data.

Contrary to such claims, the EC had no involvement in Montenegro’s census. Ana Pisonero Hernandez, an EC spokesperson, clarified before the census that the process was conducted under the sole responsibility of the Montenegrin authorities. She also noted that EU regulations on censuses do not cover questions of ethnic affiliation, religion, or language. However, these categories were explicitly included in the Montenegrin census.

Unofficial Results and Media Narratives

As the census neared completion, both Montenegrin and Serbian media began releasing “unofficial” results, focusing on religion, ethnic affiliation, and language.

Vecernje novosti, Alo online, and Russia Today  predicted an increase in the number of people identifying as Serbs and speaking Serbian. Conversely, sources from Pobjeda indicated a rise in the number of those identifying as Montenegrins.

During the census, Russia Today also published the results of a supposed survey that supported their predictions of increased Serbian identification and language use. However, the accuracy and relevance of this survey were not verified. This narrative was echoed by analysts like Srdja Trifkovic, Bogdan Zivkovic on RTS, and the ever-present Aleksandar Rakovic, who all shared similar forecasts.

MONSTAT’s efforts to clarify that such forecasts could be classified as fake news were all in vain.

“The publication of census results is defined by Article 30 of the Law on Census: Preliminary results of the census, by settlements, local self-government units, and territory of Montenegro, on number of population, households, and dwellings, and other occupied units are released by Statistical Office within deadline of 30 days after the end of the census. Statistical data are considered preliminary (they are subject to change during statistical data processing) until they stop being subject to regular revisions,” MONSTAT stated. 

“The Statistical Office will publish the final results in line with the annual plan of official statistics and the calendar of statistical data publication. According to the cited article of the law, the preliminary results of the census will be published no later than January 28, namely the number of inhabitants, households and dwellings by settlements, units of local self-government, and for Montenegro. Therefore, it is not possible to know the census results at this stage, and it is fake news,” they previously stated for Montenegrin Raskrinkavanje.

Gordana Radojevic, executive director of the Society of Statisticians and Demographers and former director of MONSTAT, also believes that it is impossible to have unofficial census results, including those related to religion, ethnic affiliation, and language. “It is possible to try, but I believe that MONSTAT kept these things under control. I don’t think that’s possible in the census process,” she told SEE Check.

Historical Distortions and Disinformation: The Battle Over Ethnic Identity

In addition to forecasting census results, media from Montenegro and neighboring countries have also engaged in historical distortions related to the census.

Prior to the census, Vecernje Novosti published an article claiming that “in 1909, as many as 95 percent of the population identified as Serbs, whereas during the Cominform period in 1948, only 1.78 percent did so.” This claim was reiterated despite its inaccuracies.

The Montenegrin fact-checking outlet Raskrinkavanje has repeatedly clarified that ethnic affiliation was not recorded before 1948. The first census to ask about citizens’ ethnic affiliation was conducted in socialist Yugoslavia that year.

This claim was repeatedly echoed throughout the entire census process, appearing both on social networks and in mainstream media. Its initial emergence can be traced back to statements made by the former Metropolitan of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Amfilohije Radovic, as early as 2019.

As Montenegro awaits the final census results, the discourse surrounding these figures will likely continue to shape the political landscape. The eventual revelations may provide some closure, but the deeper societal divisions and historical grievances exposed in this process will require careful navigation and genuine dialogue to mend. In this intricate dance of numbers and narratives, the path forward for Montenegro will depend not only on the data itself but on the collective response to its implications.

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