Bosnian census inflames festering ethnic tensions

First census since devastating 1992-1995 war

Bosnian Muslims speak with a surveyor in Krusev Do as part of Bosnia’s first postwar census. Photograph: Reuters

Bosnian Muslims speak with a surveyor in Krusev Do as part of Bosnia’s first postwar census. Photograph: Reuters


Bosnia’s first census since its devastating 1992-1995 war – a survey intended to reveal the long-lasting effects of that conflict – is stoking the ethnic tensions that it left behind. The country is still deeply divided between Muslims, Serbs and Croats, and political leaders from each group fear they could lose influence if their people give the “wrong” answers to the survey’s most sensitive questions.

The Dayton accord that ended Bosnia’s war split the country into the Serb-run Republika Srpska and a Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, regions that largely run their own affairs and are loosely linked at national level in the capital, Sarajevo.

The cumbersome system is based on the status of Bosnia’s Muslims – also known as Bosniaks – and its Serbs and Croats as the only ethnic groups that can hold senior public office.

A Bosnian Roma and a Jew successfully challenged the law at the European Court of Human Rights but Bosnia’s fractious leaders have not changed it – one of many factors that have seen the country lag behind its neighbours in the push for EU membership.

All Bosnia’s public sector jobs are allocated on the basis of quotas and these are now calculated according to the last Yugoslav census, when Bosnia was found to have a population of 4.4 million – 43.5 per cent were Muslims, 31.2 per cent Serbs and 17.4 per cent Croats.

Ethnic cleansing
The war claimed about 100,000 lives and displaced some two million people, and campaigns of ethnic cleansing – mostly conducted by Serbs against Bosnian Muslims – saw ethnic groups that had been widely dispersed in the Yugoslav years become concentrated in certain areas of Bosnia.

In the run-up to the census, which began on Monday, political leaders from the country’s three “constituent peoples” urged their fellow Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats to “correctly” state their ethnicity, language and religion to ensure they figured as strongly as possible in the final results.

Hardliners on all sides are equating the issue of identity with the struggle for survival, and want none of their ethnic kin to mark themselves down as Bosnian – a designation that suggests no ethnic affiliation.

In a bid to break down Bosnia’s divisions, activists are urging people to swell the “others” count on the census, which includes those who consider themselves Jewish, Roma or indeed just Bosnian.