By Anes Alic
The last population census in Bosnia was conducted in 1991, just prior to the 1992-1995 conflict. At the time, its population of 4.4 million consisted of 43% Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), 31% Bosnian Serbs and 17% Bosnian Croats — many of them living in mixed communities.
A lot has changed since then.
Nearly half the country’s population was displaced during the conflict, many seeking safety abroad, but the majority were internally displaced.
Today, there are no accurate population statistics.
After five years of dead-end political negotiations, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s ruling parties agreed earlier this month to conduct a national census, scheduled for April 2013.
Analysts say that it is fairly predictable that the census will show the country’s citizens living in ethnic enclaves, with the exception of larger urban areas.
“The war cleared the path for ethnically clean bubbles, but in the years after the war politicians encouraged further dislocation of ethnic minorities to areas controlled by their own ethnic groups,” Mirhunisa Zukic, president of NGO Bosnian Union for Sustainable Return, told SETimes.
In particular, the majority living in the entity Republika Srpska are Bosnian Serbs, along with an estimated 4% Bosniak and Bosnian Croat minority, most of whom are returnees to rural areas.
The reverse will emerge in the other entity, Federation of BiH (FBiH), dominated by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats. Furthermore, the census is expected show clear ethnic lines between Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats within FBiH.
While other Western Balkan countries held headcounts in 2011, BiH opted out, having unsuccessfully debated the idea for years.
Bosniaks opposed anyone stating their ethnicity, religion and language in the census, arguing it would give credence to attempts to ethnically cleanse the country.
Republika Srpska officials objected to the census because laws ensured that power sharing among ethnic groups would continue to be based on population numbers from the 1991 census.
According to a deal struck in December, ethnicity, language and religion will be optional fields on the census, but power sharing continues to be a cause for controversy.
At the request of Bosnian Serbs, officials agreed to delete Article 48 of the bill, which envisions the 1991 ethnic quotas as a basis for public posts.
The bill now states that the power sharing will be based on the results of the new census, but only after the process of refugee returns is completed. Zukic said that process will take years, as there are 60,000 people waiting to return and many others who have no desire to come back.
Following the deletion of Article 48, the Bosniak Party for Democratic Action (SDA) — a member of the ruling coalition — came under attack by opposition parties and the intellectual elite for what they perceived as a betrayal of ethnic interests.
“We initiated a compromise that ended a stalemate and made the census possible,” Erdal Selmanovic, an SDA spokesman, told SETimes. “We didn’t betray any ethnic interest. Equal ethnic representation, based on the 1991 census, is guaranteed in entity and state constitutions.”
However, if the constitution guarantees rights that the census cannot override, many may ask what all the fuss has been about for the past five years. The answer lies in the fact that the census has remained a popular tool for scoring political points.
Indeed, Selmanovic acknowledged that the past five years of grappling were unnecessary and that the bill paving the way to hold the census could have been implemented long ago.
Bosniak parties that are now in the opposition are to blame, he said, though he conceded that some in his own party participated in the obstruction.
The party Selmanovic accuses, the Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina (SBiH) — formerly SDA’s coalition partner and now in the opposition — confirmed that its members are still opposed to conducting a census under the current laws.
“The country certainly needs to hold a new census, but we will never sign the existing bill,” Beriz Belkic, the president of SBiH’s political council, told SETimes.
He stressed that the two parties’ platform to reject the census bill “was agreed on by the parties’ high officials”.
“To now attempt to hide behind the constitution, which existed at the time of the agreement, is absurd,” Belkic said.