In much of the world, the census is a mundane and familiar routine. In fractured Bosnia-Herzegovina, the exercise is so touchy that its people have gone uncounted for more than two decades.
Twenty-one years ago, the last census showed a growing share of Muslims in the diverse territory, then a republic of the Yugoslav federation. Serb nationalists pointed to the numbers and argued that their status was in jeopardy.
The next year, after Bosnia declared its independence, a brutal war erupted. It lasted more than 3 1/2 years and claimed an estimated 100,000 lives.
In a country where political power is divided along ethnic lines, local activists and outside observers worry that a new census could be manipulated for political gain. The government is testing out the census on a smaller scale, counting about 9,000 people before launching a complete tally next year.
“There is already pressure on people” over how they choose to identify, said Tija Memisevic, director of the European Research Center, part of a coalition of nonprofit groups and individuals pushing for people to be able to define themselves as they wish to census-takers. “There will be a lot of fear-mongering.”
Bosniak Muslims fear the census will cement the elimination of their people from Serb enclaves, legitimizing Serb control of areas terrorized by "ethnic cleansing." Croats worry their numbers may have diminished as well. Others fear they won’t be fairly tallied and instead shunted into one category or another for political purposes.
In the dizzyingly complex political system that evolved after the war, some government seats are reserved for each of the three “constituent” ethnic groups and some are off limits to minorities -- a barrier that the European Court of Human Rights ruled was discriminatory. Local municipalities afford seats based on the census.
As new numbers are tallied, “politicians will push for more political representation for their group or demand less for the others,” said Doga Ulas Eralp, a George Washington University expert on fragile states. “It’s going to set the tone of the debate.”
"This is strictly a technical matter,” Renzo Daviddi, deputy head of the EU delegation to Bosnia, told reporters in an effort to calm concerns about the census.
Yet Memisevic pointed out that the country could easily satisfy the European body without turning to the sensitive subjects of ethnicity and religion.
Some are frustrated that the EU has shied away from weighing in on the touchy questions on the census, seemingly happy that it's happening at all.
“Instead of saying, ‘This is divisive, this is going to be misused,’ they said, ‘Great! You passed a law. Let’s move forward,’ ” said Kurt Bassuener, a senior associate with the Democratization Policy Council who is based in Bosnia. “Westerners are acting as if this is a normal democratic transition.”
The wording of questions on the census has become a topic of fervent debate as activists push to be allowed to define themselves as they wish. During the last census, amid fears of coming strife, thousands of people declared themselves to be “Martians” in protest of the categories, Eralp said. This time, minorities such as Jews and Roma are concerned about being shoehorned into other groups to prop up numbers.
Their protests have brought some changes: Census-takers are now supposed to write down whatever someone gives as his or her ethnicity, instead of categorizing the person as Bosniak, Serb, Croat or Other. People can list more than one language they speak, though Memisevic says many don’t know that they can.
Bosnia isn’t the only place where the census has proved controversial. Some experts have pointed to Macedonia, another former republic of Yugoslavia, as a cautionary tale. The country brought its census to a halt last year amid a furor over the counting of ethnic Albanians. Nationalists argued that the ethnic group was trying to destabilize the state. Albanian activists countered that their numbers were being minimized.
Rita Izsak, a United Nations expert on minority issues, said that despite the suspicion, a new census could be a boon to minority groups in the country. Accurate counts of the Roma, for instance, could ensure a larger political voice or help policymakers better meet their needs. Recruiting Roma and other minorities to help conduct the census may help ensure they are willing to declare themselves.
Yet Izsak said she understands the frustration with the categories. “When you see a football match, if Serbia is playing, the Bosnian Serbs go and cheer for Serbia. If the Croatian team plays, the Croats cheer for them. If the Bosnia and Herzegovina team plays, who cheers for them?” she asked. “Many times it’s only Bosniaks.”
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles