First census since war faces new delay

Popis stanovništva 2013.
Popis stanovništva 2013.

The first census for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in more than two decades is facing further delay amid reports of technical and political obstacles.

The International Monitoring Operation, which is in charge of overseeing the census, has recommended that the April 2013 count be postponed by six months.

Although its December analysis is not yet available to the public, in previous reports the organisation noted logistical shortfalls, such as unclear instructions for the administration of certain sensitive questions; and an undeveloped communication programme to educate citizens as to the survey’s intentions.

The recommendation casts new light on the ethno-political battles that have surrounded this census, as a delay could mean more time for the fragile deals made between NGOs, the international community and rival political parties to break down.

Those battles have mostly revolved around concerns from leaders of the three “constituent peoples” — Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats – that their numbers will come out lower than estimated, and their demographic mandate will lose power and funding. A rumored movement toward eschewing all three categories in favor of “Bosnian,” “Bosnian-Herzegovinian,” or “other,” has only heightened those leaders’ concerns — especially among the Bosniak constituency, which is considered most likely to lose members to those categories.

The delay could also undo certain reforms hard-won by advocacy groups. As it stands, the census considers ethnicity only as a write-in, but during planning the argument was strong for a format that would instead offer four check boxes, grouping all who didn’t affiliate with one of the three constituent powers into a single, non-representative “other.” That fourth group would necessarily include the Roma, Jewish and other minority communities as well as any citizens wishing not to affiliate with the ethno-political constituencies.

A delay could mean time to reconsider that decision, and entertain reviving the four-box format, some analysts said.

“Given international practice that will be very hard to argue for,” said Darko Brkan, the president of Sarajevo-based NGO Zasto Ne?, who noted that only Croatia has a similarly limited ethnicity question, offering only ‘Croatian’ and ‘other’ as options in its census, “but that might be what they’re pushing for.”

More likely, it would simply mean more time for ethnic and political leaders to try to convince their potential constituents to identify with one group. Interested parties have reportedly already poured millions into campaigns to do so, and, as Brkan said, those campaigns are just getting started.

“As long as that money needs to be spent,” Brkan said, “the campaign will continue indefinitely.”

Though the political motivation for a delay is significant, analysts also gave credence to the stated concern over technical hurdles and a potential lack of logistic preparedness.

The April 2013 timeline “seemed quite ambitious,” said Kurt Bassuener, senior associate at the Democratisation Policy Council in Sarajevo, “given the scale of the task, the lack of preparation, and the deep structural and political dysfunction of the BiH government.”

The timeline for BiH gave its Statistical Agency only six months between the test census in October 2012 and the official one in April 2013, whereas the standard time budgeted to resolve problems uncovered in a test census is a full year.

Darko Brkan - President of U.G. Zašto ne
Darko Brkan – President of U.G. Zašto ne

Whether the census takes place in October or April, a lot is riding on its outcome. BiH’s chance to access certain EU funds, and eventually to join the EU, is contingent upon its successful completion of a nationwide census.

“Reliable and comprehensive state-level statistics are essential data for governance in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” the EU’s Andy McGuffie said. “To get access to this data, a countrywide population and housing census is required.”

To that end, the EU has committed almost 4.5 million euros to support the census, and may not want to see those funds spent on a premature survey that risks inaccuracy. Ultimately, though, the decision comes down to BiH’s own statistical agency, which can choose to take or ignore the monitoring operation’s advice. The statistical agency has yet to announce its decision.

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