How many are we? Bosnia’s first post-war census

The survey will reveal an ethnically, economically, and educationally different Bosnia.

Bosnia's first census since 1991 will have important political effects, writes Pasic [Reuters]

I woke up this morning in Sarajevo to the first census in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. The last census was held in 1991, when I was a child. I do not even remember it taking place, but Bosnia’s political system has been heavily shaped by its results, which found that the country consisted of 43 percent Muslims, 31 percent Serbs, 17 percent Croats and some listed as “other”.

These statistics have had far-ranging effects – determining, for instance, quotas for public-sector jobs.

This upcoming census – the first since Bosnia’s 1992-1995 conflict, which displaced around two million people and resulted in the deaths of about 100,000 – will take place from October 1-15. It will find how many citizens there are in the country, where they live and their level of education, among other things. This accurate demographic and social data will help to access much-needed funding from the European Union and speed up Bosnia’s EU integration process.

The census will also have a political impact, revealing the changes in Bosnia’s ethnic distribution and the extent to which once multiethnic cities and towns have been divided. With the 1991 census results no longer valid, changes will need to be made to the ethnic quotas currently in place.

Is ethnicity still a sensitive issue?

The census in Bosnia is obviously long overdue, but previous efforts to conduct one earlier were blocked by political standoffs. Political parties disagreed whether to include those living in the diaspora, and whether to ask questions about ethnicity and faith. Finally, an agreement was reached to include these two contentious questions as optional, giving citizens a right to self-identify, to not disclose, or to indicate any other affiliation which they deem applicable.

A trial census in October 2012 indicated that 35 percent of the sample, mainly youth, classified their ethnicity as “Bosnian and/or Herzegovinian” – indicating that a significant percentage of the population seem to put greater weight on being a citizen of the country, rather than their ethnicity. This category is not welcomed by nationalists on either side – and the option is not included in the current census.

The census has been highly politicised, and aggressive media campaigns have been launched to “educate” citizens about the census, or rather their national identity. This has especially been the case with the Bosniak population, who may be split between self-identifying as “Bosniak”, “Bosnian” or “Muslim”, a category used during the previous census. Croat political parties have also invited all Croats to be present in Bosnia during this time, in order to ensure higher numbers in the census.

In response, civil society organisations have tried to counter these strategies by launching a campaign called “Don’t let others tell you who you are. Be yourself”.

Additional problems

The issue of language has been nearly as contentious as that of ethnicity. Disclosing ethnic and religious identity is optional, but giving one’s mother tongue is not. Although all Bosnian citizens speak the same language, the name of the “local language” used is a matter of dispute – “Bosnian”, “Serbian”, and “Croatian” are considered three separate languages, and selecting one of them in the census will automatically indicate the person’s ethnic identity, regardless of whether they answered the “optional” questions.

And although the census has been planned for some time now, about 20 percent of census workers have quit recently. The reasons are many: low pay, no provisions for transport and meals, and lack of access to rural, sparsely populated areas. An additional reason may be that some workers found they would have to work in a region where another ethnicity predominates.

Finally, although most of the media and politicians’ attention has been directed to the three census questions about ethnicity, religion, and language, the census includes 97 questions in total. It seems as though no one has bothered to explain to citizens what will be asked in the remaining 94. Basic details about the procedure and the other questions have not been well-publicised.

What will my grandfather think of the forms when the census workers come to his house? He will not have had the opportunity to see sample questions online. And how will Bosnians react when they learn that the census will take an hour or more of their time, and that ethnicity is not the only question the census is concerned with?

What can we expect from the results?

In spite of all the issues regarding the census, the preliminary results expected in January 2013 will certainly have an impact on the country. They will show a different Bosnia – but in addition to the ethnic data, it will also tell us how many people are illiterate, how many live in inadequate housing, how many are socially or economically disadvantaged.

Some hope that the census results will narrow the space for political manipulation. But the results are also likely to revive debates of ethnic cleansing throughout Bosnia, especially when the 1991 data is compared with the current number of Bosniaks in the heavily Serbian part of Bosnia, Republika Srpska; or the number of Serbs living in Sarajevo, the mainly Bosniak capital. These discussions could yet again delay long overdue political, social and economic reforms in Bosnia.

Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and holds a Masters degree from Oxford University.