How many Kosovar Albanians are there? The answer to that question may well determine how many refugees can return to their homes - and has international aid workers scrambling to register Albanians in the refugee camps.
According to the last reliable census in 1981, about 1.6 million ethnic Albanians lived in Yugoslavia. But last Monday, Goran Matic, Yugoslavia's acting information minister, said there are half that many: 917,000.
Analysts say that's the number Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic may be shooting for as he reviews his strategy before engaging NATO in negotiations.
"That's the core of Milosevic's endgame: the refugees," says an observer of the region. "It's also the most chilling aspect of his endgame. He could easily cleanse Kosovo of half of its Albanian population."
NATO has set the return of all Albanian refugees as a precondition to a deal. Mr. Milosevic has said he is ready to accept that condition. But, with an increasing number of Albanians turning up in refugee camps in Albania and Macedonia without a shred of identification to prove their citizenship, the suspicion among aid workers is that a substantial percentage of them will not be allowed back in.
"What the Serbs will eventually say is: How do I know you're an Albanian from Kosovo and not an Albanian from Albania?" says an aid worker contacted by phone in Macedonia. "It's certainly no coincidence that a lot of these people had their IDs destroyed as they were being expelled by the Serb police."
Registration a priority
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is keenly aware of the problem. In a speech to the Security Council on May 5, UN High Commissioner Sadako Ogata said that the registration of refugees was a priority. The first phase of the registration process is set to start May 17 in Albania, where there are more than 400,000 refugees. Macedonia, which is hosting nearly 235,000 ethnic Albanians, and the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro, which has 64,000 refugees, will presumably come next.
To save time, the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration have called on Microsoft and its partners - Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, Securit World Ltd., and ScreenCheck B.V. - to set up a sophisticated database that will enable aid workers to release "official photo identification cards."
But that may not be enough. Dusan Janjic, the director of the Forum for Ethnic Relations, a Belgrade-based nongovernmental organization, points out that in the last presidential elections two summers ago, Milosevic went on record as saying that 800,000 out of 1.7 million Albanians living in Yugoslavia had voted for Milan Milutinovic, the president of Serbia.
The figures were revised in an interview several months ago. "In that interview, Milosevic stated that to his knowledge there were 917,000 registered Albanians in Yugoslavia," Mr. Janjic says. "It was clear to me then what he was doing. This game over numbers, the game [acting information minister] Matic was playing the other day during his press conference, it's another sign of what they are planning to do."
The game over numbers is an easy one to play, Janjic says. The 1981 census is old by now, and the one ordered a decade later was boycotted by many ethnic Albanians set on independence.
Also, Yugoslav citizens have gone through two passport changes in the past 10 years - one that started in 1992 and another in 1997.
Both times, according to Janjic, the government used different strategies to deny ethnic Albanians citizenship. For instance, the Federal Ministry of Communication and Transport decreed that all ethnic Albanians who were actively seeking asylum in Europe or the United States would not be given a passport. In the end, the ministry claimed there were 400,000 asylum seekers among the Albanian community, a figure that Janjic said had been grossly manipulated.
Janjic and others maintain that the only way to beat Milosevic at his apparent strategy is to fix the number of refugees that ought to be allowed back, and set that number as a precondition to a deal. "It's not enough to say that all refugees should return," Janjic says. "NATO should say 'X' number of refugees must be allowed back in before we talk."