Bosnian Census Risks Deepening Ethnic Rifts

Politicians rush to claim triumph for their own particular group, even though census data on ethnicity hasn’t come out yet.

Bosnian Census Risks Deepening Ethnic Rifts

Politicians rush to claim triumph for their own particular group, even though census data on ethnicity hasn’t come out yet.

A mosque and a church in Pocitelj, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo: Simon Jennings/IWPR)
A mosque and a church in Pocitelj, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo: Simon Jennings/IWPR)
Azra Hadziahmetovic, economics professor and member of the Bosnian parliament. (Photo: Mithat Poturovic)
Azra Hadziahmetovic, economics professor and member of the Bosnian parliament. (Photo: Mithat Poturovic)
Vehid Sehic, who identifies himself as Yugoslav. (Photo: Mithat Poturovic)
Vehid Sehic, who identifies himself as Yugoslav. (Photo: Mithat Poturovic)
The leader of the National Democratic Movement, Dragan Cavic. (Photo: NDP Republika Srpska)
The leader of the National Democratic Movement, Dragan Cavic. (Photo: NDP Republika Srpska)
Sarajevo filmmaker Ena Bavcic. (Photo courtesy of E. Bavcic)
Sarajevo filmmaker Ena Bavcic. (Photo courtesy of E. Bavcic)

When Mirjana Tesanovic, a 49-year-old lawyer from Banja Luka, was asked to select her “ethnic/national affiliation” during the first census held in Bosnia and Herzegovina in over 20 years, she did something extraordinary.

Instead of telling the census-taker to mark the box for “Serb” on the form, she decided to describe herself simply as “Bosnian”. This word denotes an affiliation to the state, not membership of one of the three main ethnicities – Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Serb and Croat.

Tesanovic says her choice was highly unusual, not only for the predominantly Serb city of Banja Luka, but for the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). In a country where war in the early 1990s killed some 100,000 people and left more than a million displaced, the Bosniak-Serb-Croat dividing lines still run deep.

“Anyone who doesn’t belong to one of the three constituent peoples is either an ‘enemy’ or excluded, unwanted, and considered weird, to say the least,” Tesanovic said.

Explaining her decision, she said, “I was born in Yugoslavia, which does not exist any more, but as long as I lived in that country, I was a Yugoslav.

“Now I live in Bosnia and Herzegovina and I’m a citizen of that country. I chose ‘Bosnian’ in the census form because that’s how I feel.”

The 2013 census took place in BiH’s two entities, the Federation and Republika Srpska (RS). The population of the Federation is mainly but not exclusively Bosniak and Croat, while RS is predominantly Serb, but again not wholly so.

As well as detailing where individuals were resident, the census form also invited them to say which ethnic group they identified with. It also quizzed them on the closely-related questions of mother tongue and religion.


The choice Tesanovic and others made is one that politicians and their supporters from each of the three main ethnic groups worked hard to prevent. In the run-up to the census, some public figures pushed the idea that one group would end up dominating the others if citizens failed to declare themselves along ethnic lines.

Although specific data from the census will only start being released in July 2014, politicians on all sides rushed to claim a demographic triumph for their own particular group.

In fact, even when the results are known, they will have no direct effect on the delicate power-sharing mechanism laid down in the Dayton Accords which ended the conflict in 1995.

Nonetheless, analysts say that thus far at least, the exercise has mainly served to stir up ethnic tensions.

From the beginning, the census was “an exclusively political question, not a statistical one,” said Azra Hadziahmetovic, professor of economics at the University of Sarajevo and also a member of the House of Representatives, the lower house of the Parliamentary Assembly of BiH.

Hadziahmetovic said the inclusion of three questions on the census form – on ethnicity/nationality, religion and mother tongue – completely overshadowed other crucial issues, like BiH’s “human and educational potential”.

Dr Valery Perry is chief of party of the Public International Law and Policy Group project in BiH (PILPG), a global pro bono law firm that provides legal assistance on peace agreements.

Perry notes that a census in Bosnia is “all about the war and who moved where, it’s all about who is ‘in control’ of a certain territory, and who can confirm the impact of the ethnic cleansing and the demographic shifts that happened.

“I think it also indicates an interest by some of the parties to confirm power-sharing principles that are based on narrow, tripartite, ethno-national labels, as opposed to any notion of accountability to all citizens.”

Other analysts echoed that view.

“There’s a bitter taste left in my mouth because this census has been approached with the question that dominates our daily politics, rather than in the way such an important task should be tackled, one that could provide a basis for future policies which could help us build a normal life here,” said Miodrag Zivanovic, a philosophy professor at the University of Banja Luka.

Long before any preliminary census results were released, politicians were quick to put their own spin on them, claiming they already knew the outcome.

Shortly after the census was completed, Sejfudin Tokic, head of the Bosniak Movement for Equality of People, said that “according to the preliminary findings we obtained from more than 2,000 observers of the census, we’re already able to say that 3.8 million people now live in BiH. Of that number, around 54 per cent are Bosniaks, while the percentage of Bosniaks in RS is around 17 per cent”.

Around the same time, the president of the Croat Democratic Union (HDZ), Dragan Covic, said that “the preliminary data suggest that the overall number of Croats in BiH is today about 570,000”.

But Damir Hadzic, from BiH’s ministry of communications, said that the data presented by political leaders was incorrect and that their sole goal was to “compromise the results of the census”.

“Adding up the percentages which political leaders from our country talked about, we might conclude that around 136 per cent of people live in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Hadzic said.

Because of the political posturing that was going on, the state agency for statistics released some preliminary results ahead of schedule – though none related to the controversial ethnicity and religion questions on the census form.

The numbers released show that 3,791,622 people were recorded in the census. They break down as 2,371,603 in the Federation (62.55 per cent), and 1,326,991 (35 per cent) in RS. About 2.5 per cent live in the self-governing Brcko district.

The number of those recorded in the census does not necessarily correspond exactly to the number of inhabitants of the country, but when compared with the last census of 1991, the figures show a decline of 580,000 people.

The full results will be announced in stages as the data is processed, beginning in July 2014 and continuing until July 2016.

The census had to be conducted in order for BiH to be considered for accession to the European Union, which will not accept a new member state without knowing how many people live there. It was the politicians, however, who pushed for questions about ethnicity and nationality to be included on the form.

“The insistence on the ethnic component being incorporated into the census enabled some to strengthen their ethnic base and others to generate fear,” said Martin Raguz of the Commission for the Law on the Census.

Serb politicians insisted on an entry on “entity citizenship”, and although this was an optional question, the media campaign run by politicians made some people think they were obliged to answer it.

RS president Milorad Dodik was quoted as saying that the entity citizenship question was a “crucial” and that his citizens “should not miss the chance to state they were citizens of Republika Srpska on the census form”.

Elsewhere, Bosnian Serb officials in Srebrenica and Bratunac urged people from those municipalities who currently reside in Serbia to return for the census, so that there would not be a fall in the number of Serbs.

And Mile Lasic, head of the Croatian Intellectual Assembly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, warned in a statement ahead of the census that fellow-Croats faced discrimination.

“It’s very important that as many Croats as possible get registered in the census, because this is a serious matter that requires engagement in order to stop Croats in BiH being deprived of their rights,” Lasic said.

Other politicians openly suggested what people should say on the census form so they that would not end up boosting the number of those registered as minorities rather than as one of the “constituent peoples”.

They also argued that if large numbers of Bosniaks put themselves down as “Bosnians”, this could reduce their numbers relative to the Serbs. One video campaign contained the slogan, “Be Bosniak so you won’t be an ‘other’.”

The term “other” has especially negative connotations in BiH, because the peace agreement that ended the war in 1995 divided certain top posts among the three “constituent peoples” – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats.

The constitution explicitly restricts membership of two elected institutions to “constituent” groups. These are the three-person presidency – conceived in Dayton as a Bosniak-Serb-Croat triumvirate – and the House of Peoples, a senate-style upper chamber with 15 seats divided equally among the three main groups, with no opportunity for others, like Roma or Jews, to enter it. (See Bosnia's "Others" Fight for Their Rights.)

In 2009, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that these exclusive provisions were discriminatory. Politicians have yet to agree on a way to act on that decision, although BiH is under considerable of pressure to do so if it wants to continue negotiating for EU membership, especially since general elections are slated for 2014.


The way the data gathered in the census will be used is still unclear, and this has led to concerns about possible abuse.

“People are afraid that if they declare themselves as Bosnian… or ‘others’, they will have a hard time getting a job in public administration,” Sarajevo filmmaker Ena Bavcic told IWPR. “People are not familiar with their basic human rights. A census should be anonymous; names should not be used in analysis of data. We don’t know what will happen in our case, since the statistics agency has retained the names but is guaranteeing protection of the data. I think fear of manipulation in the future makes people feel insecure.

One of Bavcic’s films is a short documentary called “Others”.

Census data is supposed to be disaggregated from the names of those who supply it, and this is the general standard worldwide.

But Perry, of PILPG, said that people did not have confidence that this will happen since no one knew exactly how the data would be used, or how the forms would be anonymised.

The situation is extremely frustrating for people like Vehid Sehic, head of the Forum of Citizens in Tuzla.

Sehic refused to define himself along ethnic lines on the census form. Instead, he regards himself as a “former Yugoslav” who lost his state. He says people like him practically “don’t exist” in the eyes of most politicians.

“It should be clear that minorities live in this country, as well as a group of people who refuse to declare their ethnicity. We shall certainly pursue equality [with] all other groups in BiH,” he told IWPR.


The census has given rise to fears that if its results show a radical change, this could affect the delicate power-sharing arrangements established under the Dayton agreement, which were premised on the 1991 census. While posts in two top-level structures – the three-person presidency and the House of Peoples – are fixed in an equal division among the constituent peoples – there might be scope for adjusting ethnic quotas in the two entities.

The 1991 census show that 43.47 per cent of the population was Bosniak, 31.21 per cent Serb and 17.38 per cent Croat. Just over five per cent declared themselves “Yugoslav” or something else.

Using formulae derived from the 1991 results, the government of the Federation has eight Bosniak ministers, five Croats and three Serbs. These proportions are based on the census returns from the territory that comprises the Federation as it was in 1991. The same goes for RS, where the entity government has 16 ministries, eight of them headed by Serbs, five by Bosniaks and three by Croats. Once again, the number of ministerial positions is derived from 1991 population figures for the area subsequently delineated as an entity.

The 1991 census results do not just affect the two entity governments. The proportions are mirrored in state institutions like the Central Bank and dozens of other agencies, in which quotas are based on the ethnic composition set out in the 1991 census. The same applies to ambassadors who are sent to represent BiH abroad.

Analysts say the census results on ethnicity could have a real impact on these arrangements, assuming that different political groups were able to agree on any changes. The individual constitutions of the Federation and RS were not determined by the Dayton agreement, which leaves them open to change.

The RS government, for example, would benefit from a change in arrangement, as this would almost certainly tilt the balance further towards Serb representatives.

For the moment, it remains an open question whether such a shift in ethnic representation will ever come about, and whether the census findings will be used in any way.

“Potentially, yes, [the census] could have a big impact on power-sharing structures, particularly if the results are used to inform public policy, either in terms of allocation of resources or in terms of positive discrimination measures that were put in place to ensure the participation of all three ethnic groups according to pre-war 1991 census data,” Perry said.

Although a major change in the power sharing structure seems a remote possibility, it explains the jockeying for power among various interest groups in the immediate aftermath of the census.

“Everyone wants to create the conditions for future talks on possible constitutional changes that would alter the share of power,” said Darko Brkan from the NGO Zašto Ne (“Why Not”).

Another potential complication is the fact that some legislation, including the election law, refers variously to “the 1991 census” and, more vaguely, “the last census”.

“So in these cases you could have very differing interpretations on how the 2013 data should be used,” Perry said.

She added that based on an initial review of state and entity laws, RS legislation tends to reference “the last census” while the Federation more often cites “the 1991 census.”

“This is not a minor distinction,” she said.


The census was conducted by 19,000 workers who visited households in October to collect data, a process marked by a variety of controversies.

Dalio Sijah is an activist with Popis Monitor, a body set up by local NGOs to observe the process.

“Most of the objections coming from our citizens had to do with political manipulation,” Sijah said. “Citizens claimed that census workers suggested to them how to declare themselves in a national and ethnic sense.”

Popis Monitor received over 1,000 calls during the census, as well as 250 reports of irregularities submitted through its website. Over 100 alleged that census-takers prompted answers on how respondents should identify themselves.

In RS, two census workers were found trying to take completed forms across the border into Serbia, and another was caught filling out forms in a restaurant.

The census commission confirmed that three workers were suspended because of irregularities, and that all the census materials in their possession had been confiscated.

The census in five areas of the Srebrenica municipality is to be repeated because of problems that arose there.

Radomir Pavlovic, a politician from the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, a Bosnian Serb party, and chairman of the municipal assembly in Srebrenica, said that he had seen unofficial information indicating that the number of people registered in Srebrenica during the census was twice as high as the number actually living there.

Dragan Cavic, the leader of the another party, the National Democratic Movement, has asked for an investigation into cases in Kotor Varos, where 20 to 30 people were registered as living in one household.

The Popis Monitor group pointed to numerous incidents where households were simply not included on the census in bigger towns like Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Mostar and Bihac.

The Catholic archbishop of Upper Bosnia, Cardinal Vinko Puljic, raised similar concerns the day the preliminary results were published. He said he had evidence that census-takers refused to record some people in Sarajevo and in towns in RS, even though they lived there and owned property.

“There was a case in Derventa where a census worker told a man, ‘We chased you away from here once, and now you want us to register you again?’” the archbishop said.

Radmila Cickovic, director of the RS’s office of statistics, acknowledges that “there were many challenges related to organisation and logistics” during the census.

“There were some misunderstandings regarding certain census methodologies. People sometimes didn’t understand questions, and certain procedures were violated, but we reacted and suspended the census workers in question,” Cickovic said. “All in all, we can say we are satisfied.”

Perry warned that the controversies and irregularities reported during the census were likely to affect public confidence in the results.

“Because of significant misinformation, and because of the near laser-like focus on only the divisive identity-based questions, I think there’s going to be a real lack of confidence in the results of the sensitive questions, no matter what happens. That could trickle into other questions, because people don’t have faith or confidence in the process,” Perry said.


About 20 million euro (27 million US dollars) was spent carrying out the census in BiH. Given the problems and controversies that have arisen, some wonder if it was money well spent.

Aside from the much-publicised questions about ethnic identity and religion, others left people baffled. For example, they were asked what kind of heating they had in their home, whether the bathroom was inside or outside the house, and the measurements of their kitchen.

Yet other indicators are not reflected. “We’re not going to know how many households in this country have a computer [or] car, we’re not going to know the average commute time for someone to get to their job, we’re not going to know how far the average household is from a health clinic or school,” Perry said. “There’s so much information that we’re not going to know, after an expensive exercise that massively undercut social confidence by including three questions that were not in fact required by any European [guidelines]. I think that’s unfortunate.”

Perry noted that the census only asked the “politically loaded question” about mother tongue, and not more generally about what languages people knew.

“How many people here speak English? Or German? I mean, that’s the type of information you would think that a country with a struggling economy and with a huge number of people who were displaced and acquired second or third languages [would want to know] in order to make wise economic decisions. But apparently not,” she said.

Other observers were even more critical.

“It’s clear from the form that the state does not care about the number of employed, about the income of a household, or absolute or relative poverty,” said Enver Kazaz, a political analyst and philosophy professor at the University of Sarajevo.

Many young people interviewed for this article were angry that the politics surrounding the census detracted attention from the issues that immediately concerned them – the struggle to find a decent job and pursue an independent, successful life.

As 24-year-old Milos Sarenac, who is currently out of work, put it, “We’ve been dealing with who belongs to which religion and nation for too long now, while living in a country that’s becoming poorer and poorer. I would like politicians to work on strengthening the economy, and to leave private matters like religion to their citizens.”

Boban Mitrovic, a 26-year-old from Foca in RS, is also unemployed.

“We are surviving, not living,” he said. “Only politicians and criminals are well off in this country. The rest of us are tired of all this. I don't care whether Serbs outnumber others, or vice versa. What do bigger numbers mean to us when half of us aren’t working, or work for very little pay that’s barely enough to provide a minimum standard of living?“

Others interviewees expressed cynicism about the whole process.

“I don’t trust either this census or the government,“ said Tea Glizijan, a 23-year-old student in Banja Luka. “I believe the results will be faked as well.“

In the Federation, attitudes were similarly bleak.

“We live in a country in which the international community doesn’t negotiate with citizens, presidents or parliament, but with the heads of the six political parties. No census will change that,” said Bavcic, the filmmaker in Sarajevo.

Jasminka Hamza, an unemployed student in Sarajevo, said she had been disturbed by the political campaigning and the use of nationalist formulas during the census.

“Nationalism is the strongest weapon in a generation of fear, because if you mention the war to people, they will choose anything, just so they never have to live through it again,” she said.

Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague. Dzenana Halimovic and Drazen Huterer are IWPR reporters in Sarajevo. Maja Bjelajac and Mladen Lakic are IWPR reporters in Banja Luka and Eastern Sarajevo, respectively.

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