In Bosnia, census threatens to rekindle ethnic tensions

Leaders struggle to amend 'discriminatory' constitution that holds back EU bid as ethnic groups are counted

Women in Srebrenica, Bosnia hold a banner with pictures of Bosnian Muslims killed in a 1995 massacre, as they await the arrival of the trucks transporting victims' caskets in preparation for a mass burial on July 11, 2013. During the massacre, perpetrated by the Bosnian Serb Army, more than 8,000 Bosnian non-Serbs went missing only to be found buried in mass graves, years after the war had ended.

While Bosnian leaders wrangle behind closed doors to amend their country's constitution, Bosnia has begun its first post-war census, a process which could rekindle ethnic tensions and dramatically alter the delicate balance of power between the country's three main ethnic groups.

For nearly four years, Bosnia's leaders have been unable to agree on how to amend the country's constitution, which was ruled "discriminatory" by the European Court of Human Rights and has barred Bosnia from formally applying for membership in the European Union.

Leaders from the main Serb, Croat, and Bosniak (Muslim) parties issued a joint statement on Tuesday vowing to "urgently" settle their differences over the constitution in time for a European Commission report due out on Oct. 16th, but on Wednesday a top EU official stated that they were only "halfway there."

The 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which ended the country’s three-year sectarian war, introduced a political system in which Muslims, Serbs, and Croats were deemed Bosnia's "constituent peoples" and the only ones with access to top state and legislative positions.

The politically-charged census, which kicked off on Tuesday and aims to paint a more accurate picture of Bosnia's ethnic landscape, threatens to unsettle the tenuous balance established by the Dayton accord.

In campaigning that has resembled an election more than a census, political and religious leaders have called on their constituents and congregations to declare their ethnicity and faith as a matter of national duty.

"You should know that the issue of our identity is the issue of our survival!", a well-known Bosnian Muslim intellectual, Muhamed Filipovic, told several hundred people at a pre-census gathering in the capital Sarajevo.

It is unclear exactly what impact the census will have on Bosnia's constitution, but participation in the census is likely to reflect in the future allotment of political and civil service positions, which are currently allocated between the three constituent peoples.

Muslim leaders fear that their community, the largest religious group in Bosnia, may split itself by variably responding with one of three different terms – Muslim, Bosniak and even just "Bosnian" – meaning that the country's largest ethnic group would have less representation after the census.

"The mixture of these three terms leads to confusion among Bosniaks," said Senadin Lavic, a sociologist, adding that his Bosniak community could become a victim by being "diluted into three groups."

"Our religion is Islam," Muslim clerics across Bosnia explained in a message delivered during Friday prayers. "In the census, we shall say we are Bosniaks and our language is Bosnian."

For their part, Roman Catholic priests told their worshippers, mainly Bosnian Croats, to encourage relatives living abroad to return and take part in the census.

Serbs and Croats can also opt for the simple designation of "Bosnian" - which many are expected to do as a way of protesting against Bosnia's enforced ethnic divisions.

The ‘others’

A census is long overdue in Bosnia, which saw half its population displaced and more than 100,000 killed during the three-year war between Croats, Muslims, and Serbs. The three constituent groups are each angling for a greater share of their country's leadership.

Then there are the ‘others’: those outside of the three constituent groups, including Jews, Roma, and many who are in mixed marriages. They account for around 20 percent of the population, according to some surveys.

The census would officially count them as "others", since the constitution recognizes only the three main ethnic groups.

Under the Dayton accords, about 180,000 political and civil service positions have been allocated in proportion to the size of each ethnic group, based on the pre-war 1991 census, while top jobs are reserved exclusively for Muslims, Croats and Serbs.

Darko Brkan, the head of a coalition of associations for young Bosnians called Jednakost (Equality), said their goal was to lodge a "protest against discrimination of the 'others'."

"We want to show that in Bosnia there are a lot of people who disagree with its political system and who want to change it," he told AFP.

'Others' could shift the balance of power in Bosnia if enough people eschew the dominant ethnic and religious labels in the census, piling pressure on leaders to change the constitution.

The EU declared Bosnia a "potential candidate state" back in 2003, but the 2012 European Commission progress report on Bosnia's roadmap to membership highlighted "lack of progress" on minority rights.

The last census was in 1991, on the eve of Yugoslavia's collapse, when 43.5 percent of Bosnia's then 4.4 million people declared themselves as Muslims, 31.2 percent as Serbs and 17.4 percent as Croats.

More than 5 percent said they were "Yugoslav", identifying with the socialist federation of six republics since consigned to the history books.

Results of the 2013 census are due in mid-January.

Al Jazeera with wire services

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