SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Bosnia launched its first census as an independent state on Tuesday, a politically charged event that has revived ethnic rifts and could shake the delicate power-sharing system that helped end the country’s 1992-95 war.
The 15-day survey, the first in 22 years, should give the most detailed snapshot yet of the enduring upheaval of the war, in which some 100,000 people were killed and 2 million were driven from their homes.
The results, due in mid-January, will provide data vital for efficient economic planning and for Bosnia’s ambition to join the European Union.
But the event has been marred by aggressive campaigning by Bosnia’s former warring sides - Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) - who each fear being weakened in the system of ethnic quotas set by the 1995 Dayton peace accord.
The Dayton deal created an unwieldy form of government which stopped the war but which has stifled development since.
Political and religious leaders have for weeks been urging their constituents and congregations to declare their ethnicity and faith as a matter of national duty. Bosniak campaigners on Tuesday launched an Internet and television campaign featuring popular Bosnian actors and sports personalities declaring themselves Bosniaks and their faith to be Islam.
“As Muslims, we know that our religion is Islam and we’ll say that in the census,” Efendi Husein Kavazovic, the head of the Islamic community in Bosnia, said in an address published in the Sarajevo daily Dnevni Avaz. “We ... will say that we are Bosniaks and that our native language is Bosnian.”
The last census was in 1991, on the eve of Yugoslavia’s collapse, when 43.5 percent of Bosnia’s then 4.4 million people declared themselves as Muslims, 31.2 percent as Serbs and 17.4 percent as Croats.
More than 5 percent said they were “Yugoslav”, identifying with the socialist federation of six republics since consigned to the history books.
The peace accord defined Bosnia’s Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks as its “constituent peoples”, splitting territory and power between them at the expense of everyone else - Jews, Roma and the children of mixed marriages who refused to pick a side and who are excluded from public sector job quotas.
Loosely defined as “Others”, they could shift the balance of power in Bosnia if enough people eschew the dominant ethnic and religious labels in the census, piling pressure on leaders to change the constitution in line with a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights that declared it discriminatory.
Bosnia’s failure to act on the court’s ruling has blocked its application to join the EU, which neighboring Croatia joined in July.
Safeta Radzo, a 70-year-old Sarajevo pensioner, complained of feeling under improper pressure to declare her ethnicity.
“I am lost in all of this, I simply don’t know what’s the right thing to do,” said Radzo. “If I declare myself as I wish, I would fall into the category of ‘Others’. If I declare otherwise, it would be against my will.”
additional reporting by Reuters Television; Editing by Matt Robinson and Mark Heinrich