Bosnia's first census since its 1990s inter-ethnic war, which could dramatically alter the balance of power between the three main ethnic groups, poses a particular quandary for the country's Muslims.
The results will provide data vital for efficient economic planning and for Bosnia's ambition to join the European Union.
However, the 1995 Dayton peace agreement introduced a political system in which Muslims â known as Bosniaks â along with Serbs and Croats are the Balkan country's âconstituent peoplesâ and the only ones with access to top state and legislative positions.
For months political and religious leaders of the three groups have been urging their respective communities to declare their ethnicity in the census, which begins on Tuesday and runs to 15 October. 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.
Leaders of Bosniaks, the largest ethnic group, have launched a major push to convince fellow citizens of the importance of ticking the âBosniakâ box.
âYou should know that the issue of our identity is the issue of our survival!â, a well-known Bosnian Muslim intellectual, Muhamed Filipovic, told several hundred people at a pre-census gathering in the capital Sarajevo.
The fear is that some Bosnian Muslims will declare themselves as Bosniaks, others as Muslims â their label under the former Yugoslavia â and still others simply as Bosnians, meaning citizens without an ethnic affiliation.
âThe mixture of these three terms leads to confusion among Bosniaks,â said Senadin Lavic, a sociologist, adding that his Bosniak community could become a victim by being âdiluted into three groups.â Serbs and Croats can also opt for the simple designation of âBosnianâ â which many are expected to do as a way of protesting Bosnia-Hercegovina's enforced ethnic divisions.
This group, including many who are in mixed marriages, accounts for around 20 per cent of the population, according to some surveys. The census would count them as âothersâ, since the constitution recognises only the three main ethnic groups. Under the internationally brokered Dayton accords, some 180,000 political and civil service positions have been allocated in proportion to the size of each ethnic group, based on the pre-war 1991 census, while top jobs are reserved exclusively for Muslims, Croats and Serbs. Darko Brkan, head of a coalition of associations for young people from all over Bosnia called Jednakost (Equality), said their goal was to lodge a âprotest against discrimination of the others'.â âWe want to show that in Bosnia there are a lot of people who disagree with its political system and who want to change it,â he said.
These people, loosely defined as "others", 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 neighbouring Croatia joined in July. Results of the census are due in mid-January 2014.
"I refuse to be pigeonholed," says Sabina Jamakovic, 28-year-old pharmacist in Sarajevo, asking: âHow can they reduce us to only one identity? I may feel I'm a member of one ethnic group, but I will not declare myself as such in the census because I refuse to be pigeonholed and then misused for political purposes,â she said.
But a Sarajevo University student, Admir Hasic, expressed wariness. âWe should be very careful. Someone wants to divide us (Muslims) into several groups and to reduce our importance,â he said. âCroats and Serbs have no dilemma how to declare themselves, neither should we.â Pensioner Senada Milisic, a devout Muslim, said she wanted to identify herself as she feels â as a Bosnian who follows the Muslim faith.
âBut now we are advised to declare ourselves as Bosniaks... I am confused and frightened, feeling it will be wrong whatever I eventually say,â Milisic told AFP.
The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights deemed Bosnia's constitution discriminatory against other ethnic groups, notably Jews and Roma, in 2009, ordering Bosnia to amend it, but this has not been done. Bosnia's failure to act on the court's ruling has blocked its application to join the EU, which neighbouring Croatia joined in July.
Bosnia held its last census in 1991, when it was one of six republics making up Yugoslavia. At the time it had population of 4.4 million â 43.5 per cent were Muslims, 31.2 per cent Serbs and 17.4 per cent Croats â and the three groups were scattered throughout Bosnia.
The war that erupted following the break-up of Yugoslavia claimed some 100,000 lives, and half of the pre-war population fled their homes. The conflict led to each ethnic group becoming concentrated in separate zones, many forced to move by a Serbian military strategy of ethnic cleansing.
Bosnia today remains deeply divided along ethnic lines, split between two highly-autonomous entities â the Serbs' Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation â linked by weak joint institutions.
Political analyst Enver Kazaz predicted that the census, however it turns out, will not bring about major changes to the country's organisation.
âThis monstrous peace deal made Bosnia a country composed of three ethnic groups, and this can be changed only at a new international conference... or with another bloody war,â he warned.
Rusmir Smajilhodzic, "Bosnia's census poses quandary for Muslims" Dawn October 1, 2013
"Bosnia's first census as independent state revives ethnic rifts" The Gauardian UK October 1, 2013
Reproduced with permission from Islam Today