Human rights and minority groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) are claiming victory after persuading authorities to rephrase questions on the country’s upcoming census to more accurately reflect the population’s ethnicity and religion.
The census law was passed in February under international pressure after five years of political negotiations. Scheduled for April 2013, it will be the first census in BiH since 1991.
But NGOs took issue with the limited nature of the census questions, which they said would help further entrench ethnic politics and legitimise discrimination.
NGOs and the international community claimed three of the 45 census questions devoted to ethnic characteristics were designed to elicit preconditioned responses.
The initial questionnaire limited citizen responses to ethnic declaration and marginalised those who would want to avoid declaring any ethnicity or religion. The BiH Statistical Agency amended the questionnaire last month to provide more freedom of response by allowing non-believers and agnostics to declare their views. The changes also increase the native language options, letting respondents choose more than one language.
“The updated questionnaires will satisfy all the ethnic groups and will annul the discriminatory elements,” Zdenko Milinovic, Statistical Agency director, said at a news conference last month. “Enumerators are also instructed that they cannot demand that citizens declare their ethnic and religious status and that answers can be left blank.”
Adnan Huskic, a member of Initiative for a Free Declaration and lecturer at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology, told SETimes the census was important for the country’s ethnic and religious minorities and their political and public involvement, but must provide an accurate picture of the country’s ethnic make-up.
Huskic took issue with the original questionnaire which offered “pre-defined answers.” The updated questionnaire, he told SETimes, “removes these discriminatory preferences and gives citizens more liberty with increased options for response.”
Dervo Sejdic, a representative of the Roma Information Centre Kali Sara, told SETimes that the law passed by the ruling coalition still discriminates against all Bosnian citizens who do not declare themselves as Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs or Bosnian Croats, and who do not speak one of the three official languages.
“Basically, in the absence of pressure from local NGOs and the international community to amend the questionnaire, I am afraid that the authorities would not have made any changes to the text and the census would provide a distorted picture of the Bosnian population,” Sejdic said.
“It would also encourage the ongoing division of BiH into three main groups, plus ‘others’.”
Meanwhile, authorities have announced plans to hold a pilot census this month. Originally, the pilot census was scheduled for September but was delayed due to Sunday’s (October 7th) local elections. The results of the pilot census will affect the decision of the International Monitoring Commission on whether to advise the Bosnian government to go ahead with the full census next April.
However, Bosnian NGOs and representatives of EUROSTAT, the EU’s statistical office, who visited the country in early September, are still considering pushing for a postponement of the census.
While Huskic said the new questionnaire is more satisfactory, he is not convinced that BiH is ready for a new census.
“I believe that it is being rushed and that there was not enough time to prepare properly,” he said. “We haven’t held a census for 20 years, so we haven’t had the opportunity, like other countries in the region and the EU, to compare it with previous results and fix mistakes. The national census is a highly sensitive issue and we can’t afford any mistakes.”
At the time of the country’s last census in 1991, the population of 4.4 million consisted of 43 percent Bosniaks, 31 percent Bosnian Serbs and 17 percent Bosnian Croats — many of them living in mixed communities.
A lot has changed since then.
Fadila Memisevic, president of the Bosnian branch of the German-based Society for Threatened Peoples, told SETimes the outcome is easy to predict.”The census will show that Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups are living in ethnically clean bubbles,” Memisevic said.
“The majority living in the entity of Republika Srpska are Bosnian Serbs, along with an estimated 4 percent Bosniak and Bosnian Croat minority. The reverse will emerge in the other entity, the Federation of BiH, dominated by Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats.”
Nearly half the country’s population was displaced between 1992 and 1995 during the Bosnian conflict. Many sought safety abroad, but the majority were internally displaced. Unofficial estimates are that today BiH is home to 3.8 million people.
The national census is crucial to BiH’s EU integration aspirations and the signing of a Stabilisation and Association Agreement, which is the first step toward EU membership.
This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.