Bosnia’s First Ever Census Sparks Heated Debate Over National Identity

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Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Bosnian Muslims speak with a census surveyor before interviews during Bosnia's first census in the village of Krusev Do, Bosnia on October 1, 2013.

Nearly 18 years after the war ended, the scars of war are visible in Bosnia, whose 4 million-strong population still live in a society shaped by the bloody conflict that sundered the former Yugoslavia. There’s the bullet-marked buildings that litter its landscape, the land mines that contaminate its mountainous terrain and the mass graves that are still being uncovered today. And then there are Bosnia’s ethnic divisions into three ‘constituent peoples’ — Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. Still jarringly present, these divisions emerged at their rawest amid the country’s very first census as an independent state.

The 15-day population count — which ends on Oct. 15 — is heavily politicized. Bosnia is split into two entities — the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (which is mostly Bosniak and Croat) and then the Republika Srpska (which is majority Serb). The census, with its up-to-date population data, is required by the E.U. before Bosnia can begin serious talks to join its ranks. However, the inclusion of a non-mandatory ethnicity question has threatened to upset the country’s delicate power share. While many political and religious leaders in Bosnia fear being weakened in the ethnic quota system, some Bosnians have heralded the census as an opportunity to challenge Bosnia’s ethnic politics and put the country on a new, united path.

Bosnia’s internal politics are notoriously complex. Its fragmented political system, divided on ethnic lines, is rooted in the U.S.-brokered peace deal that ended the 1992-95 war by splitting power and territory between the three warring sides — Bosniaks (who are Muslim), Serbs (Orthodox) and Croats (Catholic). While it stopped the fighting, the peace deal also cemented ethnic divisions and excluded certain minorities (Jews, Roma, children from mixed marriages and those who have refused to identify with any ethnicity) from public sector quota jobs. In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Bosnia’s constitution discriminatory.

Ethnic tensions have been aggravated in the months leading up to the census. Political and religious leaders, along with the media and many NGOs, are urging Bosnians to declare their ethnicity as a matter of national duty out of fear of being weakened in a system based on ethnic power quotas. “If there are more than 50% of us Bosnia will be a national state of Bosniaks and we will dominate the other two peoples,” Sejfudin Tokic, leader of a campaign urging Bosniaks to declare their religion and ethnicity, told Reuters. Meanwhile, in a letter to clergy, the Roman Catholic archbishop in Bosnia – Cardinal Vinko Puljik – said it was the “moral duty” of all Catholics to declare themselves as such in the census.

At the same time, activists are calling on their fellow citizens to reject divisive ethnic and religious labels. “The census has already aggravated a lot of fiery, war-like rhetoric against different ethnicities – it has been very problematic,” says 34-year-old Darko Brkan, who is heading up a campaign to persuade his fellow citizens not to relinquish their ethnic identities. “The ethnicity question shouldn’t be taken so politically but the political parties want to base their future discussions on the changes of the constitution on that question.” Brkan hopes that if enough Bosnians reject ethnic labels, and simply identify themselves in the census as “Others,” this could upend Bosnia’s constitution by challenging the country’s system of ethnic politics. He estimates 20% of Bosnian citizens consider themselves as Others. Thousands have joined his campaign, using social media platforms to post pictures of themselves holding signs with phrases like “Ethnically challenged” and “A citizen above all.”

Brkan’s campaign has angered nationalists and threatens the status quo. Vesna Bojicic-Dzelilovic, a senior research fellow at the London School of Economics, explains this is because Bosnia’s elite groups have a vested interest in ensuring their separate ethnic fiefdoms are maintained. “If you look at who has benefited from this conflict, you can see that it has made some people very powerful, very influential, very rich,” she says. “And as long as this small group of political and economic elite have their own territory and their own ethnic group to rule over and control, their interests are preserved.”

While there is no hot conflict in Bosnia today, Bojicic-Dzelilovic says ethnic tensions are forever kept on at least a low-burn by the country’s political arrangement. Bosnia does not function as a single market and society is fragmented to the extent that there are separate schools for children of different ethnicities, separate hospitals, separate telecommunication companies and separate power companies. Mirza Ajnadzic, a 26-year-old documentary filmmaker who has lived in Sarajevo all his life, says this fragmentation is not helped by the way Bosnians continue to talk about the war as though it happened one year ago instead of 18 years ago. “With the census, the narrative goes that if you don’t identify as Bosniak it’s like accepting what the Serbs did to the Bosniaks in the war. Or if you don’t choose to be Serb, it’s like accepting what the Bosniaks and Croats did to Serbs in the war. It’s all nonsense – but it’s a strong weapon in the hands of ethnic politics,” Ajnadzic says.

The last census in Bosnia was back in 1991— just before Yugoslavia imploded. Back then, 43.5% of Bosnia’s then 4.4 million people identified themselves as Bosniaks, 31.2% as Serbs and 17.4% as Croats. The remainder — which amounted to just over 5% —said they were ‘Yugoslav.’ The ensuing war killed 100,000 people and displaced 2 million in Bosnia alone.

A country blighted by political corruption, weak infrastructure and the highest unemployment rate in Europe, Bosnia is trailing other ex-Yugoslav countries in the quest to join the E.U. The census results — set to be published in January — may present another field of contest for a society still caught between a bloody past and an uncertain future.