Surprising (con)census in Bosnia

By bne IntelliNews November 14, 2012

Ian Bancroft in Belgrade -

Ahead of Bosnia-Herzegovina's first census since 1991, results from a small preparatory sample revealed that some 35% identified themselves as "Bosnian and/or Herzegovini" - a designation that is widely understood as a more civic identification compared with one of the three constituent nations: Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. Were such results to be repeated next April, it could have profound ramifications for the ongoing debates about the country's constitutional structure.

Ethno-national identity remains at the very core of Bosnia's institutional set-up that was created out of the rubble of the Bosnian war in 1995, which split the country in two entities: the Muslim-Croat Bosnian Federation, and the Bosnian Serb Republic. Quotas in elected offices and the civil service, for example, are currently allocated according to results from the Bosnia's last census back in 1991 - prior to the war that left roughly 100,000 dead, displaced several million and fundamentally altered the country's ethnic distribution.

Florian Bieber, a professor of Southeast European Studies and director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, Austria, posits that if the reported sample census results are replicated at the national level, "the question is whether the strong tri-national structure of the state can be justified amidst a more significant number of self-identified Bosnians and Herzegovinians."

Constitutional reform became a fundamental requirement after the European Court of Human Rights ruled certain provisions discriminatory, following a case brought by Dervo Sejdic and Jakob Finci, members of the Roma and Jewish communities, respectively. Under Bosnia's current constitution, only members of the three constituent nations can be elected to the presidency and house of peoples, excluding the likes of Sejdic and Finci.

Bieber points out that such a census outcome would "increase pressure on the parties that Sejdic-Finci is not just about bringing minorities in, but also about creating space for those who do not identify along ethnic lines. This is both technically and legally not easy, and politically even harder."

Controversial census

The issue of Bosnia's census has proven politically contentious, leading to a number of postponements and revisions, particularly because of concerns about the divisiveness of questions about ethno-national identity and religion. The census debate also comes during a period in which new fears abound about the future of Bosnia's state-level institutions - the attempted strengthening of which has been a hallmark of international intervention.

Two of the country's most powerful politicians - the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD) leader Milorad Dodik, and Social Democratic Party (SDP) leader Zlatko Lagumdžija - reached agreement on a number of important issues concerning the judiciary, elections, energy, the central bank, civil service and the C5 transport corridor.

One particular point of contention concerns proposed changes to the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council (HJPC) - an institution into which the international community has invested a great deal of its resources and reputation - which would see prosecutors appointed by legislative bodies, with governments proposing candidates from a list produced by the HJPC. Changes to the electoral law, meanwhile, envisage closed lists and changes to the oversight process.

While promoting economic development and rationalising Bosnia's cumbersome public administration, the agreement provoked a sharp reaction from those who felt it further undermined the cohesiveness of the Bosnian state. "Our concerns are compatibility with EU criteria; respect for the constitution; respect for international agreements; and the specific challenges faced by [Bosnia] as a country with an EU membership perspective," Jamila Milovic-Halilovic, a spokesperson for the EU Special Representative in Bosnia, tells bne, adding that the key challenges were outlined by the European Commission in its October EU enlargement strategy and include strengthening the rule of law.

However, as Picard, Kentz & Rowe, a law firm retained by the Bosnian Serb Republic government to provide international law advice, tells bne, the agreement "which has been supported by the major Croat parties, represents a remarkable move away from inter-party conflict to consensus on major issues among Bosniks, Serbs and Croats... The agreement addresses: the Brussels roadmap, faster economic development, streamlined public administration and incentives for investment, and improved inter-party dialogue... This is a time for friends of [Bosnia] to withhold criticism and offer positive ideas and encouragement as implementation of this ambitious agenda moves ahead."

Which elements of the agreement are ultimately adopted remains to be seen. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has already confirmed that the terms of Bosnia's loan deal forbid changes to the law on Bosnia's central bank, thereby nullifying an agreement to amend the legislation in order to allow the mandatory central bank reserves of commercial banks to include state securities.

With ethno-national identity remaining the primary mode of political mobilization in Bosnia, political parties are expected to run extensive campaigns ahead of the census to ensure that, as Bieber fears, people "opt for ethnic identity to secure their [the party's] legitimacy." Well prior to spring 2013, however, the Lagumdzija-Dodik agreement may have fundamentally altered the course of Bosnia's politics, regardless of the stance of the international community, raising the prospect of further compromises and concessions that will safeguard Bosnia's future.

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