PODGORICA, Montenegro – Montenegro and Kosovo are holding their first census since gaining independence, rekindling the bitter ethnic rivalries that tore the Balkan region apart.
Billboards championing different ethnicities line Montenegro streets, with pro-Serb and staunchly patriotic Montenegrins accusing each other of pressuring citizens into declaring their ethnicity amid campaigns that include nationalist rhetoric.
"This census is a test of Montenegrin national awareness," says Goran Lukacevic, a 35-year-old teacher from the capital, Podgorica.
The pre-census atmosphere in this tiny country of around 600,000 has turned into a battle between pro-Serb groups and Montenegrins who narrowly split the country from Serbia in a referendum in 2006.
Pro-Serb politician Andrija Mandic this week accused Montenegrin authorities of leading an aggressive campaign.
They have "violently assimilated some national communities, especially the Serb community," he charged.
Another pro-Serb politician has asked for citizenship in neighboring Serbia. Montenegrin authorities promptly stripped him of his Montenegrin identification documents until his final status is resolved
Census are a sensitive topic in the Balkans, as they determine the number of Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, Muslims, Montenegrins and ethnic Albanians who make up new states created after the violent breakup of Yugoslavia in 1990s. Millions of people were forced to leave their homes during the orgies of violence that accompanied the dissolution, and many had to resettle elsewhere. The census will illustrate how many have returned.
Croatia started its second census Friday. During its first population count in 2001 the minority Serbs — a majority of whom fled the Croatian region in fear of their lives after Croatia retook Serb-held areas in 1995 — numbered around 200,000, some 5 percent of the population.
Croatia has since pledged to facilitate the return of Serb refugees and the country is hoping numbers will have risen in the spirit of reconciliation — an important sign if Croatia is to reach its goal of joining the European Union.
Other Balkan countries are also moving toward reconciliation as they seek to join the EU — but the tensions that led to wars remain.
In the Montenegrin capital Podgorica, the patriotic Montenegrin camp stirred local emotion by erecting a giant billboard outside Parliament: "Isn't Montenegro dear to you?" the image of a 19th century Montenegrin king questioned from above.
Not to be defeated, the pro-Serb camp has responded with billboards picturing another 19th century monarch from the same royal family — this ruler, however, proclaims he is Serbian and proud.
According to the 2003 census, 620,145 people live in Montenegro — 43 percent Montenegrins and 31 percent Serbs. The rest declare themselves Bosniaks, Muslims, ethnic Albanians or Croats.
Lukacevic says Montenegrins should state who they are to confirm their statehood.
"If we fail this test, our referendum victory from 2006 will have a bitter taste," he said. "The Balkans is quiet now, but our neighbors are always eyeing our property, name and our soul."
Montenegrins decided to separate from Serbia in a tense referendum in 2006, when pro-independence voters won by a slim majority. The narrow difference — 55 percent in favor of independence and 45 percent against — illustrated the divisions in the country.
In neighboring Kosovo, which — with the help of the West — declared independence from Serbia in 2008, the census is the first in three decades. However, the minority Serbs have announced a boycott out of a profound loyalty to Serbia, which does not recognize the independence.
Kosovo has about 2 million people, mostly ethnic Albanians — the leaders of the 1998 rebellion. Belgrade responded with a bloody crackdown, which triggered NATO bombing that ended Serbia's rule in 1999.
The prewar Serb population was estimated at around 300,000, but many left after 1999 fearing revenge attacks from the ethnic Albanian majority. Those remaining have refused to recognize the country's ethnic Albanian authorities.
In Belgrade, Serbian officials have sought to encourage Serbs in other Balkan countries to freely declare their ethnicity and religion. President Boris Tadic said on the eve of the census Thursday that "each person has the right to a free declaration of their identity ... and I am certain that this European value will be respected."
Earlier, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irinej, encouraged his followers to say they are Serbs of Orthodox Christian faith.
Croatia's minority Serbs remain faithful their second census will help further improve their position in the country.
"Atmosphere in the society has improved in the past several years," politician Sasa Milosevic recently said. "We have started an important job, but this is just a beginning."
Jovana Gec in Serbia and Nebi Qena in Kosovo contributed to this report.