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.”