SARAJEVO/TIRANA (Reuters) - Bosnia's chances of joining the European Union could be jeopardized if it fails to conduct a census next year, a tangled issue in a country still divided 14 years after war, a top official has said.
Something as routine as counting citizens is very sensitive in the Balkans, where ethnic and religious divides were at the heart of the wars of the 1990s. The issue plagues the region as it seeks to lure investment and progress toward EU membership.
Failure to carry out a census “will create enormous problems for negotiations for accession, it will create enormous problems for the extension of our financial assistance," Dimitris Kourkoulas, head of the European Commission delegation in Bosnia, warned in an interview. "Time is running out."
Last week, Bosnia's multiethnic national parliament failed again to pass a long-disputed law on the first census in the Balkan country since it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1992, a year after its last census.
Bosnian Muslims oppose anyone stating their ethnicity, religion, and language because of the massive exodus of Muslims and Croats during and after the 1992-95 war. Bosnian Serbs say including the questions represents a basic human right.
"The lack of a census in 2011 would be unfortunate for Bosnia-Herzegovina in terms of its EU perspective," EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on January 27. "It would make it more difficult to solve important socioeconomic questions because of the lack of reliable statistical data."
The census is also an issue in Kosovo, where, as in Bosnia, the West keeps troops to monitor a fragile peace following conflicts over territory and minorities.
Kosovo plans a census in mid 2011, the first since 1981 when Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia. About 90 percent of Kosovo's population is ethnic Albanian, of whom 90 percent are Muslims, in a region considered the cradle of Serbia's Orthodox religion.
In Kosovo's neighbor Albania, there are also worries that rivalries may erupt when citizens in next year's census state ethnicity and religion for the first time since King Zog conducted the country's first census in 1930.
Some fear the count may artificially create a much bigger ethnic Greek minority in Albania's 3.2 million population.
The size of Albania's ethnic Greek minority, numbering 56,000 to 60,000 people according to Tirana and 400,000 according to Athens, has caused friction in the past between the two NATO neighbors in the years since Albania toppled communism.
Historian and opposition politician Pellumb Xhufi argued that some Albanians who receive pensions from Greece will feel under pressure to declare they are Greek.
The government says it does not expect the census to cause instability, arguing that Albania now has safeguards such as being a NATO member and an EU membership candidate, which it did not have when King Zog did the census between the world wars.
"The same alarming arguments were expressed even then, but ultimately, history proved that decision right," state minister Genc Pollo said in an interview.