SARAJEVO -- Bosnia-Herzegovina this week begins its first official census since the 1993-95 war. The project has once again raised the question of the extent to which this multiethnic, multicultural country has been able to forge a national identity since gaining independence.
What nationality are you? What language do you speak? What is your religion?
These three seemingly simple questions and the myriad ways of answering them have been on the minds of many in Bosnia as the country this week begins its first national census since 1991.
"I don't know what ethnicity to put," says Jasna Tamez, who lives in the capital, Sarajevo. "I don't know what to do. I'm still thinking about it. Religion isn't a problem, but ethnicity is. I don't know how people in America declare themselves, right? Germans are Germans, so why can't we be Bosnia-Herzegovinians? It is very complicated, but we should call ourselves like that. That is my opinion, and I still don't know what to do. I would be happiest if I could call myself 'Bosnian.'"
The census is a historic undertaking with the potential to reveal much about the human landscape of a country still struggling to emerge from war and ethnic cleansing. At the same time, it threatens to tug at the seams of a state that is struggling to form a united national identity on a multiethnic, multicultural foundation as parties representing the country's three constituent ethnic groups -- Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats -- wrangle for political power.
"The first thing we can expect is to see the effects of 20 years of war and the postwar period, which is basically characterized -- and that was the nature of the conflict -- by severe ethnic cleansing," says Adnan Huskic, a political analyst in Sarajevo. "Which means that we will probably now see more coherent, homogenous ethnic regions in Bosnia-Herzegovina distributed among the three ethnic groups."
Less dramatically, but perhaps more importantly, Huskic adds, the census will give policymakers vital information about things like education levels and housing conditions that has never been available before. Accurate information of this type is essential if Bosnia is to continue its path toward integration with the European Union.
The country's last official census was held in 1991, although the United Nations conducted one in 1996 following the signing of the 1995 Dayton agreement that ended the Bosnian war.
The state statistics agency -- which is conducting the October 1-15 census -- estimated the population at 3.15 million in 2011. In 2008, the agency estimated that 45 percent of the country was Muslim, 36 percent was Serbian Orthodox, and 15 percent was Catholic, giving a sense of the breakdown among Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Roman Catholic Croats.
The current census, which was originally planned for 2012 and was postponed amid political disagreements, has been years in the making. But that it is finally being held and that no major groups are calling for a boycott are seen as significant milestones for Bosnia.
However, ethnically based political parties from all three major groups have been campaigning actively to get results that support their political positions. Authorities in Bosnia even rebuked Croatia recently for urging Bosnian citizens to answer the three crucial questions with "Croat, Croatian, Roman Catholic."
According to sociologist Jesuf Ziga, ethnically based political parties have exploited the lack of statistical data to make wild assertions. He hopes the new census will help rein in such claims.
"I believe that the space for manipulation on ethnic or nationalist principles will be significantly reduced and all those prone to such statements will lose their positions," he says. "It will be hard to defend statements we heard quite often such as that there are only 3,000 Serbs left in Sarajevo compared to 150,000 in the past or that the number of Bosniaks or Croats in a certain area is such-and-such with the numbers being inflated or drastically reduced however somebody needs them to be."
Bosniaks face the most vexing choices when the census-takers arrive. The new census will be the first time the country's Muslims will have the opportunity to identify themselves as "Bosniaks," an ethnicity that some Serbs say does not really exist.
"For the first time, Bosniaks will be able to declare themselves as Bosniaks speaking the Bosnian language," says Sejfudin Tokic, the coordinator of a project called It Is Important To Be Bosniak. "This is a historic census -- from the Austro-Hungarian period when they were forced to declare themselves as Muhammadans or during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia when a Bosniak identity was not acknowledged, or during Communist Yugoslavia when Bosniaks were forced to declare themselves as Serbs or Croats practicing Islam. In this regard, this is a historic census."
Between 1974 and 1993, Bosniaks in Yugoslavia were permitted to identify their ethnicity as "Muslim." After the war broke out, they adopted the term "Bosniaks," a historic name dating back to Ottoman times.
But many Bosniaks are themselves wary of the Bosniak tag, which they see as overly politicized. Some have said they will answer "Muslim" or "Bosnian" when asked about their ethnic identity, a prospect that has alarmed Bosniak political parties.
Meanwhile, representatives of Bosnia's 14 other recognized ethnic groups worry that the census results will weaken them even further relative to the three constituent groups.
Bosnian census officials have been working hard to convince Bosnians that their information will be secure and to squelch rumors that census data will be used to collect taxes or to confiscate vacant housing.
According to the chief methodologist of the state statistics agency, Nora Selimovic, each census-taker has been given clear guidelines on how to do his job. "His task is only to ask the questions," she says. "They are obliged to write down exactly what citizens say, which means that a person can declare himself or herself or say nothing. They can say they are a Martian or an Eskimo. Whatever they say, the census-taker is obliged to write it down without commenting."
Some say people are now worn out by the politicization of the census and the pressure from politicians to declare a particular identity.
"I do not see any other problem except that people are being persuaded to declare themselves in one way even if they feel differently," says Jurica Gudelj, a 29-year-old journalist in the city of Mostar. "We have seen very intense campaigning on this, but in the end I think the results will show there is a significant number of people in this country who feel that they are just Bosnia-Herzegovinians."
Preliminary results from the census are expected within 90 days, but it could take a year or more for the final report to be issued.
Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague