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Bosnia Braces For Release Of Much-Delayed Census Data

  • Charles Recknagel

Volunteers hand out leaflets with information about new Bosnia's census in Jablanica, 60 kilometers south of Sarajevo, in September 2013.

Volunteers hand out leaflets with information about new Bosnia's census in Jablanica, 60 kilometers south of Sarajevo, in September 2013.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is set to publish the results of its first census since the end of its civil war two decades ago, providing the first statistical view of how much the fighting redistributed its population geographically.

The expected publication on June 30 of the census, conducted in 2013, is widely expected to raise tensions in the ethnically divided country, where memories of the 1992-95 conflict remain fresh.

The war killed 100,000 people and displaced 2 million more amid widespread forced movements of civilians on all sides.

Although they have not been leaked, the new census figures are likely to confirm that the once ethnically mixed capital, Sarajevo, is now overwhelmingly Bosnian Muslim.

At the same time, the statistics are expected to reveal for the first time the extent to which the Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia's two constitutional entities, with around 1.3 million residents, remains dominated by Bosnian Serbs despite the return of some expelled Bosnian Muslims and Croats to the region.

Such issues are particularly sensitive and politically loaded because, under the Dayton accords that ended the fighting in November 1995, political power is divided among Bosnia's three ethnic groups according to their relative populations.

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The quota system is based on Bosnia's last census, which was conducted in 1991 just before the outbreak of the war. However, the Dayton accords were meant only to start Bosnia on the road to stability and do not address what happens once a new census is taken -- leaving any new arrangements to be worked out in practice by Bosnia's fractious political parties.

"Everyone wants to create the conditions for future talks on possible constitutional changes that would alter the share of power," says Darko Brka of the NGO Zasto Ne (Why Not) in Sarajevo. He predicts that Bosnia's ruling parties, which are ethnic-based and mostly date to the war years, will seize upon the new data to argue for adjusting the quota system in their respective favor.

Safety In Numbers

Currently, under formulas derived from the 1991 census, the government of Republika Srpska has 16 ministries, eight of them headed by ethnic Serbs, five by Bosnian Muslims, and three by ethnic Croats. Bosnia's other entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina that is dominated by Bosnian Muslims and Croats, also has 16 ministries, but eight are headed by Bosnian Muslims, five by Croats, and three by Serbs.

"According to the Dayton peace agreement, each ethnic group has to be represented in local, regional, and any other level of government and in each institution according to the census from 1991," says Slavo Kukic, a sociologist at the University of Mostar. "If we get new results with changed figures, then the representation in institutions has to be changed as well."

INFOGRAPHIC: Bosnia's Ethnic Divisions, Before And After Dayton

With the stakes high, quarreling among the political parties began long before the census takers got to work and has continued ever since -- delaying release of the results for three years. The census is being issued now after intense pressure from the EU, which says updated demographic and social data is essential for the country to continue accessing much-needed funding from Brussels.

Much of the quarreling has focused on the census organizers' inclusion of people who fled Bosnia for refuge abroad during the war yet continue to have property in the country.

The Republika Srpska objected to census takers counting Bosnian Muslims and ethnic Croats who fled their homes in the region and now reside in another country with dual citizenship. If the final census results show that these former refugees have now been included in the Republika Srpska's population, their numbers, plus those of returned refugees, could call into question the legality of the virtual monopoly on power that Serb-based parties now hold in Republika Srpska.

Similarly, many Bosnian Muslim parties in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina objected to census takers counting Bosnian Croats who have homes and jobs in neighboring Croatia. If the final census figures include this population, Croatian parties could use the larger numbers to argue for a greater share of power within the federation.

"In some people's minds, particularly among politicians, the war has never ended," says Ranko Mavrak, a Sarajevo journalist who works with the Croatian state news agency HINA. "If you take a closer look at what the discussion over the census is really about, it looks like a discussion about who is going to be the majority and who is going to be the minority in this country and how this is going to reflect their political and overall influence in the future."

Confronting Identity

Ahead of the census taking, all of Bosnia's ruling parties pushed citizens to give their identity to census takers in ethnic terms. The census form provided for people to identify themselves as Bosnian Muslim, Serb, Croat, or other, with a line for providing their own definition of their identity if they so chose. Some groups, including Zasto Ne, urged people to protest against ethnicity-based politics by identifying themselves simply as "citizens of Bosnia." The census results will show how many did so, providing one measure how much ethnic divisions have, or have not, healed since the war.

For many observers, any new rounds of wrangling over the census are only likely to mire the country deeper in a system where its ethnic-based parties remain bitter rivals instead of working together to address Bosnia's many problems. The country lags far behind the other ex-Yugoslav republics in its quest to join the European Union, which insists it carry out a wide range of political, social, and economic reforms as a prerequisite to any accession process.

Azra Haziahmetovic, a professor of economics at the University of Sarajevo and a parliamentary deputy, says that the census is supposed to provide a focal point for Bosnia's parties to cooperate on development planning for the future. But she sees little sign they will do so.

"Nobody is talking about property, about agricultural land, about the social circumstances of the citizens, the only issue discussed is how many Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims] are here and there," she says.

Gordana Knezevic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service contributed to this report