EU: Controversial Population Census a Top Priority for New Bosnian Government

The European Union is urging Bosnian political leaders to speed up the creation the ruling coalition following October 2010 general elections, saying that the adoption of a national census law should be the new government’s top priority.

EU officials have repeatedly warned Bosnia that the failure to hold a national census in 2011, at the same time as other EU and Western Balkan countries, could affect its position in the international community.

If the census bill, which has been in parliamentary procedure for the past four years, is not passed within the next couple of months, Bosnia will have no time to prepare its national census, which would leave the country as the only one in the region without a census. This would represent a major obstacle for the dialogue with the EU and the pre-accession process.

The last time parliament was scheduled to debate the law in late July 2010, Bosnian Serb MPs failed to appear at the session. This was followed by summer vacations and then preparation for the general elections.

As the new ruling coalition is not formed yet, it may prove impossible to conduct a census in 2011, which is one of the conditions for the continuation of the integration process of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the EU.

The 1991 Bosnia and Herzegovina Population Census was the last conducted since the 1992-1995 war. At the time, its population of 4.4 million consisted of 43% Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), 31% Eastern Orthodox Serbs and 17% Catholic Croats, many of them living in a patchwork of mixed communities.

A lot has changed since then, as nearly half of the population was displaced during the war, either relocating to other countries or displaced within Bosnia.

Though the EU is pushing hard for a census for this year and has warned that failure would damage Bosnia’s prospects of joining the bloc, the reality is that a new census would end up reflecting a demographic reality skewed by war and ethnic cleansing.

The census law has for years been the subject of dispute among the country’s ethnic groups. Bosniaks oppose anyone stating their ethnicity, religion and language in the census, arguing it would cement the results of ethnic cleansing following a massive exodus of Muslims and Croats during and after the war.

The Serbs say that such entries in the census represent a basic human right. Republika Srpska officials specifically objected because the law prescribes that power-sharing between ethnic groups in Bosnia after a new census is completed would continue to be based on population numbers from the census held just months before the outbreak of the war. According to the draft bill, this would be the case until the refugee return process in the country is complete.

The obvious compromise, a census with optional questions about religion and ethnicity, is being debated in parliament. But if many people in a municipality choose to respond to these questions, the census will still give a fairly detailed picture of the ethnic composition. The European Commission also clarified that the reply to questions on national/ethnic and religious affiliation is not obligatory.

On a technical matter, if Bosnian authorities pass the census law within the next few months, the census could be held by the end of November 2011, and the country then not miss the deadline. Still, this all requires the formation of a new government, as the winning political parties continue to negotiate a majority coalition with little progress yet in sight.

Bosnian statistics institutions say they are ready to finalize all preparations for a census, which would cost some €25 million.


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