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Bosnia Erupts In Feuding Over New Census Data

Bosnian Muslims speak with a survey taker during Bosnia's first census in the village Krusev Do, near Srebrenica, in October 2013.

Tensions are soaring in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the results of its first postwar census, which show that Bosnian Muslims are now a majority in a country whose population has shrunk overall by one-fifth.

As the Bosnian national statistics agency released the results of the country's 2013 census in Sarajevo on June 30, authorities in the country's Serb-dominated entity, the Republika Srpska, immediately refused to recognize the census as valid.

The census, whose release was delayed for three years amid disputes between Bosnia's ethnic-based ruling parties over methodology, shows that 50.1 percent of the country's population declares itself as Bosnian Muslim.

That is up from 43.5 percent in 1991, when Bosnia conducted its last census just before the country plunged into its 1992-95 war that killed 100,000 people and displaced 2 million more amid widespread forced movements of civilians on all sides.

The new census shows that Bosnian Serbs make up 30.8 percent of the population, down from 31.2 percent in 1991, while Croats account for 15.4 percent, down from 17.4 percent in 1991. Overall, the population of Bosnia dropped nearly 20 percent to just over 3.5 million.

The results are highly politically charged in Bosnia, where memories of war remain fresh and the Dayton accords that ended the fighting in November 1995 based power sharing upon the relative populations of the country's three main ethnic groups.

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

Some observers expect the census results to now rekindle efforts by ethnically based Bosnian Muslim parties to push for a dominant voice in the country's affairs.

"Without 50 percent means sharing power in three equal parts," says Zlatko Dizdarevic, an independent journalist when asked how politicians view the stakes. "More than 50 percent of one ethnic group would be a different state, a Bosniak [Bosnian Muslim] Bosnia-Herzegovina with two other minorities."

Bosnian Serbs Reject Results

By immediately rejecting the census results, officials of the Republika Srpska signaled they would not accept any changes to the current power-sharing distribution based on the new data.

The entity's own statistics agency, which is supposed to cooperate with the state-level statistics agency, said that it would not publish the results within Republika Srpska because the census counted people who fled Bosnia during the war and now live abroad.

State census authorities said when announcing the results on June 30 that they included 196,000 people living abroad but retaining property in Bosnia. The Republika Srpska authorities had sought to exclude anyone working or studying abroad from the census over apparent concerns that many of them are Bosnian Muslims and Croats who fled the now Serb-controlled territory during the war.

Inclusion of large numbers of Bosnian Muslims and Croats in Republika Srpska's population could weaken the de facto grip Serbian parties now have on the region despite the fact that, according to the new census, almost 16.5 percent of the entity's population is not Serbian.

Top officials in the Republika Srpska have yet to say what they will do in response to the census results. But politicians in the entity predict its government will maintain its earlier position that the census would be invalid so long as it counts people outside the country.

"The results [of the census] will not be applied in Republika Srpska, that already was the decision of the Republika Srpska's parliament," says Dragan Cavic, head of the National Democratic Party. "There will be other consequences as well. The Serbian representatives in the [national] statistics agency for Bosnia-Herzegovina will withdraw."

The new statistics have the potential to fuel power-sharing disputes because the Dayton accords created the current arrangement based on the 1991 census figures but did not stipulate what would happen once a new census was taken. The accords, meant only to set Bosnia on the road to stability, left any new arrangements to be worked out in practice by Bosnia's fractious political parties.

Currently, 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.

Hardening Of Identities

Apart from counting Bosnia's population, the census also provides new details on how Bosnians see themselves in terms of ethnicity two decades after the war forced people into rival camps.

Before the war, Bosnian Muslims were widely considered to be mostly nonreligious, with polls often showing no more than 5 percent of respondents defining their religion as Islam.

However, the new census shows that the number of people who identified themselves as Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) is almost exactly the same as the number of people defining their religion as Islam, with a difference of less than one percentage point.

Similarly, almost the same number of people who defined themselves as Serbs described themselves as Orthodox Christians and the same number who defined themselves as Croats identified themselves as Catholics.

The much-delayed census results were issued on June 30 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. 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.

But many observers say the main immediate impact of the new census data could be simply to mire Bosnia's rival parties deeper into quarrels that have long prevented them from cooperating over the country's many other problems.

"Nobody is talking about property, about agricultural land, about the social circumstances of the citizens, says Azra Haziahmetovic, a professor of economics at the University of Sarajevo. "The only issue discussed is how many Croats, Serbs, and Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims] are here and there".

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