Let the manipulation begin: First number claims of the Bosnian census

Less than two weeks since the end of the census (see my previous posts on the Bosnian census here and here), politicians have begun to claim to know the results of the Bosnian census. First the head of the HDZ Dragan Čović claimed that there are some 570,000 Croats in Bosnia “according to information he gets every day.” Afterwards, Sejfudin Tokić, a former Socialdemocrat and now a vigorous campaigner for Bosniak identity (and against Bosnian identity), coordinator of the “Bosniak movement for equality of nations” claims to know the number of Bosniaks: According to him, there are 54 percent Bosniaks in Bosnia and 17 percent in the Republika Srpska (and 32.5 percent Serbs, 11.5 percent Croats and 2 percent others, as reported here. See also here, and here).

While these numbers might turn out to be true, it is completely implausible that the two or anybody else already has such reliable numbers. Take some regional examples: The 2011 census in Montenegro was carried out in April, first results were released in May, but only pertained to the population numbers, not the break down by ethnicity, religion or language. These results were released in August, i.e. four months after the census was concluded. This is record breaking fast by regional standards and that is due to the fact that Montengro is, well, small. Montenegro, like Croatia and Serbia have also conducted one post-war census and are thus arguably better prepared than Bosnia. In Serbia the first results, again only pertaining to the overall population number were released a month after the census and results about ethnicity were released in November 2012, more than a year after the census in October 2011. In Croatia,two months passed to the publication of first results, and results on ethnicity where not published until 2013, well over a year and a half since the census was held in April 2011 .

Considering the complexity of any census and particularly the Bosnian one, numbers that are currently circulating cannot be considered reliable. The claim by Čović and Tokić that they have informers that provide them with data that would allow for a Bosnia-wide picture of the population distribution by ethnicity is implausible. First, this would require a very large number of informants to give such a comprehensive picture. Second, considering that lack of knowledge about the size of the population and other data, giving percentages of a particular community is inherently inaccurate. Third, a census is not like an election where you can have a parallel vote count based on a representative sample. First, one does not know what is representative (not just in terms of size, but also in terms of age, geographical distribution) in Bosnia and second, the results in the census and those given to third parties might very considerably, especially when it comes to identity questions (in the census somebody might call himself a Bosnian, but when somebody from the NGO “it is important to be Bosniak” knocks on the door to ask about identity, the answer might be different).

Thus, if statistical offices from neighboring countries with more experience in censuses, less complicated processes and structures take at least four months and usually more than one year to give the number of citizens identifying with one nation or ethnic group, claims to know this in ten days are at best a “guestimate” and at worst just made up. But why make up numbers or circulate such claims? It is a perfect example of setting expectations. This is called the anchoring effect in psychology,  well described in Thinking, Fast and Slow by David Kahnemann. If you are giving a number associated with a question (like a price tag for a product or the age of a person), you are likely to use it unconsciously as an anchor, no matter how random the number might be. If the price tag of jeans states 150 Euros and then you are told, they are on sale for 25 % off, they seem like a good deal, but that original number might as well be random and still we are influenced by it.

Circulating numbers about population shares is unlikely to be shaping the outcome of the census, but it is likely to shape the perception of the outcome. Thus, if you claim that 54 percent of the population are Bosniaks and the real number is 42 percent, the number seems wrong, too far away from the original claim and thus can be more easily challenged. This type of setting the agenda thus substitutes results with desired results. In the best case, the desired results turn out to be real, in the worst, they are lower and then their legitimacy can be challenged. Timing matters here: CeSID and others involved in the parallel vote count in 2000 in the Milošević elections know why: they were eager to get their first results out before the state election commission. By releasing the results first, they planned to set the agenda: They determined what is the standard results against which all others are measured, not the state election commission. When the state election commission produced their results, they seemed wrong also because they differed from the results first released by CeSID.

Whether those circulating numbers will succeed remains to be seen, but the season of number games has official opened.

When counting counts. The Bosnian Census

Today the Bosnian census official came to end: media from around the world (here, here and here) took this opportunity to devote some space to Bosnia that evokes little international attention as the permanent crisis of the country is no longer newsworthy.

So why the census? Formally, the results will have few immediate consequences. The quotas in the public administration for members of different “constituent people” are linked to the so called completion of Annex 7, i.e. the chapter to refugee return. These formal criteria are of course a farce. There is no significant refugee return in Bosnia for nearly a decade and while there continues to be a slow trickle, for all practical purposes this chapter is closed. Otherwise the distribution of offices is enshrined in Dayton that does not provide for any formal link between demographic distribution and power it endows group-representation. Of course, the census gives everybody something to hope for and fear of. This is probably the reason this census actually succeed despite high levels of political tension and minor irregularities . The census in Macedonia, a similarly sensitive context, had to be abandoned after a few days of counting. Neither has any particular group boycotted the census, as was the case among Albanians in South Serbia and most Serbs in Kosovo in 2011 (for an overview over the contestation in censuses see this recent article  by Gezim Visoka and Elvin Gjevori and by Dejan Jović in Političke analize).

1. The number of Bosnians

The number of Bosnians is probably the largest uncertainty. Unconfirmed numbers for the sample census suggested a high share of Bosnians (above 30%). This number seems unrealistic, at least on the Bosnian-wide level considering low levels of identification with supra-ethnonational identities in pre-war censuses and the degree of polarization after the war. Of course, a high number of Bosnians constitutes a threat to the currently dominating parties that derive their legitimacy and power from importance of the “constituent people” as the main Bosnian identifies categories. The more Bosnians, the less sustainable is the Dayton arrangement. However, two important questions emerge: First, who are the Bosnians? If most Bosnians are by background Muslim-Bosniaks, the ethnonationalist model is not equally threatened, but just among Bosniaks parties. Only if a significant number of Bosnians are also of Croat and Serb origin, can the number challenge the current arrangement. The second question is how to accommodate Bosnians in the current system. Of course, this will depend on the numbers, but this has been difficult in Yugoslav times, when in fact the authorities from the 1970s onward discouraged identification as Yugoslavs to the 1990 Bosnian election where one seat of the 7 member presidency was reserved for Yugoslavs and Others, resulting in the victory of the Muslim candidate Ejup Ganić for the post who was not particularly Yugoslav or Other. Treating Bosnians just like another ethnic group and thus replicating the system of representation for constituent people might be tempting, but is absurd. Instead, a large number of Bosnians would suggest that the levels of ethnic representation built into the system should be overall reduced.

2. The number of Croats

Croats were the smallest of the three constituent peoples already in 1991 and having obtained Croatian passports (as have many non-Croats as well), many left for Croatia over the past 18 years. Thus, a considerably smaller number of Croats is expected than in 1991. If the share of Croats would fall under 10 per cent, the demand for equal treatment to Bosniaks and Serbs would be less plausible and the bargaining power of Croat parties would diminish. Of course, a small population share is also in other divided societies not an obstacle for representation and the Turkish Cypriot community held considerable influence after independence and also in peace plans since (including the 2004 Annan plan), despite constituting less than 20%. Similarly in Kosovo, the Serb community constitutes around 6% of the population and enjoys reserved seats and extensive mechanisms to ensure its input in the decision-making process. Yet, a sharp drop among Croats would confirm that Bosnia is moving towards a bi-national state.

3. The number of Bosniaks

Bosniaks are the community with the least firm identity matrix and thus some of the most pronounced „campaigning“ during the census was among Bosniak citizens. No census has so far offered the possibility to declare as a Bosniak, so we do not know yet whether citizens agree to the switch from Muslim to Bosniak identiy made during the war by intellectuals and later ratified in Dayton. In neighbouring Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro a significant share of citizens opted for the older category of Muslims over Bosniaks. While the term Bosniak might have more traction in Bosnia itself—the problem for Muslims in Serbia, Montenegro or Croatia is that Bosnia is not a kin state and the affiliation with Bosnia is less obvious—the might be a substantial number of Muslims. In addition, probably most Bosnians would be otherwise identifying as Bosniaks. In theory a large number of Muslims or Bosnians could result in a situation that Bosniaks are not the largest community in Bosnia.

4. The number of non-Serbs in RS

Before Republika Srpska was established in 1991, only around 54% of the population were Serbs, the number climbed to well above 90% by the end of the war through ethnic cleansing, mass murder and genocide. However, as refugees did return, it is unclear what the numbers are today. While the RS hopes to “ratify“ ethnic cleansing through the census and to confirm that the RS is a proto-nation state a larger share of non-Serbs would challenge this ambition.

5. The congruence of nation, language and religion

The dominant understanding of ethnonational identity is that national, religion and language identity are linked. It is thus no surprise that these questions are grouped together in Bosnia, as in most other census of the region. Of course, this presumption is by no means certain. While it is unlikely to find more than a few Croats who also identify as Muslim, there is potential for non-Bosniaks and Bosnians to speak Bosnian and being an atheist is not inherently incompatible with being a Bosniak, Croat or Serb. If we look at census in recent years across the region, there is few heterodox combinations to be found, except for Montenegro, where language and national identity do not coincide.

6. How many Bosnians are there in Bosnia?

Nobody knows how many people live in Bosnia. The numbers given suggest around 3.8 million, but these are at best estimates. As a result, one does not really know that GDP per capita and other crucial data cannot be determined without the population size. In addition, the specific numbers across the country might correct some misconceptions. Generally speaking, one would except a trend in urbanisation as a result of the war and the post-war period as poor rural areas have been abandoned. Yet the cities might have not grown as much as some expect. This was one of the big surprises of the Kosovo census when it emerged that Prishtina was not as large as observers had thought. Similarly, the general depopulation of certain regions, in particular eastern Bosnia is an important question as these areas with a large Bosniak population have suffered from depopulation through the war and poor economic conditions have made the return particularly unattractive.

While some preliminary results will be published early next year, it would be unusual based on other censuses in the region that these preliminary results would contain any data on identity. This data will take considerably longer to process, and according the International Monitoring Operation (IMO) which includes representatives from Eurostat, the European Commission Directorate-General for Enlargement, the Council of Europe (CoE), United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the final results will be released between one and one and a half years from now. This waiting period unfortunately coincides with the next general elections meaning that leaked census results, real or made up might become a feature of next year’s electoral campaign. So the counting is over, the use and abuse of numbers has just begun.

An unexpected count: Results from the Bosnian sample census

Over the past two weeks, Bosnia held a small scale sample census to prepare for the much expected 2013 census. The census has been postponed several times and is highly controversial, mostly because the issue of ethnonational identity. Not only are quotas in the civil service and elected offices allocated according to the census (so far formally according to the 1991 census, but down the road it might be hard to uphold this if a new census is available), it is also an important tool for all parties to bolster respective claims (i.e. about the Serb predominance in the RS, about the number of  Bosniaks in Bosnia overall). Today, nobody knows the number of inhabitants, not to mention their self-identification. It is thus no surprise that the census results will be hotly contested. Already the run up to the census has been controversial: the identity questions about ethnic/national identity and religion have created heated debate once the first draft questionnaire was published. While offering write-in options, it did offer the categories Bosniak, Croat, Serb, undeclared and other (write in) and below, neatly replicating the identity categories, Muslim, catholic, orthodox, undeclared and other.

The critique focused on the fact that non-religious citizens had no clear category available, nor did people with multiple identities. Again, all these categories were similar to censuses conducted in other countries of the region in 2011. In addition to domestic criticism international observers lobbied for less rigid and more open questions. The NGOs lobbying against the proposed survey were successful and the questions on identity were reformulated.

The new questions first gave a write-in option with the national identities only listed below, allowing for  respondents to choose more than one identity. For religious affiliation the questionnaire now offers the choice to be an agnostic and atheist, a significant change from the previous form and regional practices.


The sample census hast just been completed and no results have been officially announced, but today Dnevni List published results of the census. The results have to be taken with great care, as we do not know if they are based on all sample municipalities, nor can we be sure that the results are reliable (the article includes some dubious claims, such as the suggestion that any nation that amounts to more than 50% of the population has the right to a nation state according to international standards). There is an important additional caveat. The sample census is not aimed at being representative. However, it was conducted in different regions of Bosnia, including the Federation, the RS and Brcko, in villages and in cities (or rather city municipalities, including parts of Banja Luka, Sarajevo, Mostar). Thus, it is not representative, but it can certainly considered to be indicative of country-wide trends.

If the results are even anywhere close to being indicative, it would be quiet an earthquake for Bosnia’s identity politics. According to the article, 35% declared themselves to be Bosnians and/or Herzegovinans, especially younger citizens. This would make this group presumably larger than any of the three nations and certainly more so than Croats and presumably Serbs. In addition, many older citizens appear to have identified as Muslims rather than as Bosniaks. Others identified as Catholics and Orthodox rather than as Croats or Serbs. This would suggest that state and religious affiliation matters more than national identity to many.

While the article does not publish the results in percentages, the data presented would suggest that against most common expectations ethno-national identity categories have largely failed. State identity might be stronger than expected and the uniform ethno-religious categories have been challenged.

Even if there are no immediate implications for the political system, in case these results are replicated country-wide, it would have considerable consequences. It would be hard uphold institutions such as the three member Presidency and the House of Peoples which currently exclude all non-Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. The implementation of the ECHR ruling regarding Sejdic and Finci would also receive greater urgency. It might also raise questions why non-ethnic parties fared so poorly if they have such a large pool of potential voters and might reinvigorate electoral campaigning of this population group.  Either way in Bosnia, censuses are elections and vice-versa. It will be important to look out for the census/election results next year.

The first results of the Montenegrin elections, I mean census, are in

Today, Monstat has released the first results of the April 2011 census. It’s census year around world and also in the Balkans, which will mean a new snap-shot of controversial issues such as identity. In a politically charged environment, these are not so much definitive indicators of identities, but subjects of debate and contestation. In Montenegro, there has been an campaign led by different organisations to mobilise citizens to indicate their identity in a particular way. The muftija of Sandzak Zukorlic and the Reis ul Ulema Ceric called on Bosniaks to declare not only their religion as Islam, but also to declare their mothertongue as Bosnian and their identity at Bosniak. Similarly the Croat National Council called on Croat to identify as Croats, being Catholic and speaking Croat.

A Serb radio station put up billboards calling on Serbs to have children, to multiply and fill the country.

Similarly there were posters calling on citizens to identify as Montenegrins. In brief, there was a proper election campaign of identity. Observers have noted that elections in Bosnia are often a population census. In Montenegro in turn, censuses are elections. So who won? A quick comparison with the result of the last census in 2003 show that the decline of Montenegrin identity since 1981 has been halted and that there is a slight increase. At the same time, number of self-identified Serbs has declined slightly, but again this decline is only by a few percentage points. The number of Bosniaks/Muslims, Croats and Albanians has not really changed significantly.

These results suggest a stabilization of the identity categories since 2003. There were dramatic shifts in the previous decade , especially from Montenegrin to Serb identity, caused by the re-definition of Montenegrin identity as endorsing Montenegrin statehood. Despite the creation of an independent Montenegro in 2006, there does not appear a dramatic shift away from Serb identity.  What is also telling is the continued divide among Bosniaks and Muslims with around 2/3 identifying as Bosniaks and 1/3 as Muslims (8.65% and 3.31% respectively). It is interesting to note that around 0.8 % of the population indicate a composite identity (such as Montenegrin-Bosniak, Montenegrin-Serb), not a negligible group considering that such combinations are not usually encouraged in censuses. Also 0.19% still identify as Yugoslavs.

The fact that identity still does not follow the exact patterns that the nationalist logic dictates is best shown by the mother tongue. Only 36.97% of the population indicate that they speak Montenegrin, 42.88% call their language Serbian, and 5.33% Bosnian. Over 3% call their language Serbo-Croatian, Bosniak, mother tongue or by some other name. These results suggest that a majority of Bosniaks and Muslims don’t consider their mother tongue to be Bosnian, many Montenegrins choose a different language (presumably Serbian) and more than half of Croats don’t speak Croatian. Here, the number of Serb speakers dropped the most, indicating that the campaign of the Montenegrin state to establish Montenegrin as a language has borne fruit.

This picture is further complicated by religion where 72.07 % are orthodox, 19.11% indicate Islam or Muslim and 3.44% Catholicism as their religion. Agnostics and Atheists are just above 1.3% of the population.

This picture suggests that the congruence of religion, language and national identity is less “perfect” than nationalist engineers of identity would like it to be. At the same time, efforts to subvert these categories have not done so well: the campaign for Montengrins to declare as Jedi or Sith only gathered around 100 followers.

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