Bosnia’s Upcoming Population Census And Blatant Discrimination Against the ‘Others’


By: Medina Malagic

With the upcoming B&H census, a fourth category is offered as an option for B&H citizens to check as an alternative to the other three options-Bosniak, Serb and Croat. While this option allows people to declare themselves however they wish and gives space to individual choice, it carries with it more substantial connotations. For many, it is a form of protest against the discrimination that is inherent in the B&H Constitution in which constituency is afforded to three ethnic groups.

When placed in the specific and convoluted ethnic categorization of groups in the B&H Constitution, the ‘Others’ encompasses people who, by name, would otherwise belong to one of the three constituent groups but who do not wish to affiliate with those groups, and national minorities in B&H.

What inevitably results from this narrow labelling and the grouping of all those who do not belong to one of the three constituent groups is that identity in B&H is institutionally established and deeply entrenched as an exclusively ethnic one, and it precludes any attempts at reform that would foster the possibility of individual and civil rights. The idea of the fluidity of identity is denied. In addition, this institutionalized discrimination prevents minorities in B&H from holding high-level political offices, as well as employment in the civil service sector.

Darko Brkan, an activist and President of the organization ‘Zašto Ne’, is in the forefront in the concerted efforts to raise awareness to the institutionalized discrimination in the B&H Constitution, since power sharing in B&H is based on a delicate balance between three ethnic groups, while the ‘Others’ do not espouse the set-up of their country in this way.

As nationalists in B&H have intensified their efforts to try to get people to identify on an ethnic basis, the ‘Others’ have been involved in their own activities as part of a campaign of raising citizen awareness on what the census entails, as well as offering citizens new alternatives that are in stark contrast to the narrow ethnic labeling that has been force-fed since the end of the war.

Koalicija Jednakost, founded in December 2012 and comprised of 24 civil society organizations in B&H, including ‘Zašto Ne’ and other like-minded individuals, has been involved in a campaign where individuals are photographed carrying signs that make bold statements that defy ethnic labelling, such as ‘B&H Citizen Above All’, ‘Ethnically Challenged’ and I Am Not Constituent’. The group is also involved in an ongoing campaign where they have been travelling throughout B&H cities and towns, handing out booklets containing information that is pertinent so citizens are aware of what they need to know for the upcoming census.

The key stance of opponents to the current ethnic set-up of B&H is that B&H citizens should be aware that the questions on ethnicity and religion in the census actually have nothing to do with their ethnicity, traditions and customs. Instead, they are used as tools of political manipulation by the elites in this country in their efforts to preserve their comfortable positions in power.

”We are not advocating any particular identification on the census. We want people to understand the implications of it. We are trying to make people understand that it is not their traditions and identity they are declaring. These questions will never match their identities. It won’t be used for cultural purposes or established traditional values. They will be used for politics and power sharing. It is a political stance that is being made, not identity”, said Brkan.

Brkan highlighted that political parties and B&H state institutions are in direct violation of Article 44 of the Census Law, which stipulates that a fine from 100 KM to 10.000 KM would be handed out ”If contrary to the will of a person covered by the Census, they exert influence on that person to, against his/her will, give information on his/her ethnic or national or religious affiliation”.

”Governmental institutions have been supporting campaigns asking people to declare themselves a certain way”, said Brkan to Sarajevo Times.

He also expressed concern of the lack of preparation for this census, and that complex issues would definitely come up during and after the census.

”Between the three agencies, there is no protocol on implementation. This protocal would define how data will be used and they can’t make bylaws and strategies for handling the data after the census. They haven’t found a central counting place and they need a place to store hundreds of tons of material. There is not such a place in this country that has that capacity. They are not clear among themselves on how to interpret methodology”, said Brkan.

Thus, with only one day left until the start of the first B&H population census since 1991, the ongoing campaigns led by political parties, as well as religious institutions and even some academics, clearly indicates that in B&H census questions on ethnicity, religion and language dominate. There are still an array of unresolved issues that could jeapordize the accuracy of the census results, and since political parties have a vested interest in preserving the current institutional structure, their prime focus on ethnicity demonstrates that they want to keep their tenacious grip on the status quo.

As political parties continue their campaigns intended to cajole citizens into checking one of the boxes for either Bosniak, Serb or Croat, they propogate the message that doing so is a positive affirmation of their ethnic origins and identity. However, their opponents, as Brkan pointed out, want to get their own message out there-under the guise of preserving ethnic identities, it is actually the status quo that B&H citizens would uphold, and it is a status quo that exclusively benefits the few, exacerbates ethnic divisions and discriminates against the ‘Others’.

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