Number Games: Political Censuses in the former Yugoslavia

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) has just concluded the round of hotly debated censuses in the former Yugoslavia. Unlike its neighbours and EU countries, which all conducted their censuses in 2011 or earlier, the Bosnian headcount was postponed due to political squabbles by two years and finally organized only under direct European pressure. What preceded was a series of protracted political conflicts over numbers and political power. The Bosnian census is not only an indicator for the distribution for public policies but potentially a decisive factor in re-structuring the constitutional framework of the troubled country. The number game, which the census had launched in the country is potentially a source of instability as examples from neighbouring countries suggest. Moreover, trying to measure and categorize complex identities in Bosnia could do more harm to the delicate social fabric than good.   

Tool or weapon?

A census usually serves a multitude of purposes. It provides a comparative demographic data within a state and across its regions; it serves as a tool for designing economic, social and public policies, and it indicates some important demographic and sociological changes regarding immigration, life pathways, age and gender structure together with a number of other statistical trends over time. It is a key yardstick for a state to deliver services, policies and programmes in a balanced and informed manner. Yet it is also a crisis-prevention mechanism. How else can you foresee a major shortage of places in schools unless you have an idea of how many children to expect enrolling in the next few years? A regular demographic review assists to design informed and balanced social and economic plans.

In diverse societies census-based data is also used for designing constitutions, i.e. anchoring ethnic or national rights and dividing political powers across all minorities and groups. In such environments, though, censuses can also be an important starting point for identity-based politics due to their implication for the identity and social belonging of all relevant groups. Their administrative and statistical role this way transforms into a tool for justifying political objectives and group entitlements. They can potentially reconfigure institutional frameworks and empower some groups at the cost of others. Demographic data-gathering is thus turned into something similar to electoral campaign, i.e. into a contest for achieving the most favourable numbers (outcomes), which ensure the greatest possible share on power. The battle of numbers is even more precarious in fragile post-conflict situations, where identities are loaded with fresh painful memories and often even animosity. Censuses state categories and draw borders, which often tend to simplify very complex social structures and limit personal identities into a series of ticks and boxes. Kertzer and Arel noted that the main challenge of census is that they set their goal “as that of objectively assessing the state of subjective identities” (2002, p. 20).

In the case of former Yugoslavia, given the interconnectedness of the exiting ethno-national groups, the demographic results can lead to a serious reshuffling of not only national but also regional politics. Previous censuses in the region of the former Yugoslavia have been criticized for escalating ethnic tensions and marginalizing some ethnic groups. The round of censuses of 2011 demonstrated how divisive headcounts can be. A series of boycotts, campaigning for aligning with this or that identity, (non-)participation, and disputes about the legitimacy of the count were commonplace.

Arguing and boycotting

After a series of failed attempts, Macedonia conducted its first post-war census in 2002. Given the existing power-sharing agreement between Macedonians and Albanians in the country concluded in 2001 in Ohrid, the Macedonian census was an open battle for ethnic quotas. As the census was conducted by international bodies, it was significantly less intense than the latest 2011 census. The latest count led to a multitude of disputes about the nature of residency, the background of the count administrators, and the provision of the necessary documentation to be provided to the authorities. The outcome was inaccurate to say the least.

Even more problematic for the statistical overview in Kosovo in April 2011, was non-participation of the influential Serb minority in three northern provinces. It was meant to be the first comprehensive demographic count since 1981. Yet restrictive residential conditions created a stir among advocates of the inclusion of the Diaspora. Moreover, alongside “traditional” categories such as ethnic, national and religious group, a category of refugees was included. The census turned into a political tit-for-tat, providing inaccurate statistical data. In retaliation, the same situation was repeated in Serbia where Bosniaks in Sandzak and Albanians in Preshevo boycotted the census in October 2011. The Bosniak Council stated that their boycott was the expression of disagreement with ongoing discrimination and that the results would be manipulated unless their representatives were be part of the counting process. The Albanian ethnic minority for their part argued that given the massive outflow of Albanians from Serbia to Kosovo and European countries, the numbers would not reflect the actual reality.

Surprising results

Unlike the previous examples, the Croatian and Montenegrin census conducted in the same year can be assessed as relative success stories. Although also delayed due to administrative irregularities, Croatia conducted its headcount without serious problems. Yet the results were deeply frustrating for the Croat national identity as well as the Catholic Church. Seeing a significant drop in the country’s population by 0.03% from the 2001 census, the census suggested demise among Catholic believers while showing an increase of Orthodoxy. The Montenegrin census pointed to another controversial issue in the former Yugoslavia: language politics. 44% Serbians declared to speak Serbian, while only 37% chose Montenegrin (the official state language since 2007) as their mother tongue. This could potentially have some constitutional consequences as the number of persons identifying with a Serbian identity has grown and could seek an official recognition as a distinct national group.

Make hasty conclusions slowly

The latest Bosnian census of October 2013 was certainly the most contentious to prepare and organize. During the lead-up to the most recent national count, Bosnian Serbs had been the main advocates of organizing an early census in order to exercise (and justify) political rights based on proportionality. Bosnian Serb leaders have been clamorous about organizing a referendum, which the census results could only justify. Bosnian Muslims and Croats have been less approving of the demographic mapping exercise. The former feared the negative influence on returns, while the latter’s main apprehension was the lowering number of Croats, diminishing their proportional rights. The most controversial questions turned around the actual design of categories of ethno-nationality, religion, citizenship and mother tongue. Not all Bosniaks consider themselves Bosnian Muslims and to some people being a Bosnian and a Muslim represents a national and religious affiliation retrospectively. Yet advocates of Bosniakness called for their merger. More alarmingly, although the official and international evaluation of the headcount was positive, local NGOs received hundreds of citizen complaints about technical irregularities of the census. This casts a shadow of what conclusions can be drawn based on its results.

While waiting for the census results, we should be cautious about deriving purely number-based policies on the institutional set up of the country. Though the historical importance of the census is undisputed and cannot be diminished, the political nature of the census and its organization could have perilous effects on the fragile state. The endlessly criticized Dayton Agreement once succumbed to the number games of the incumbents. To follow the same logics of ethnic quotas and number-based rights would be a mistake. To use the census for further ethnicization and focus our attention on numbers only would be a great oversimplification of the importance of the historical and social role all the groups living on Bosnian territory.


D.I. Kertzer, and D. Arel (Eds.) 2002. Census and Identity. The Politics of Race, Ethnicity, and Language in National Censuses, Cambridge University Press.


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