Serb Police Adapt to New Bosses in Kosovo

The integration into Kosovo of police officers who formerly took their orders - and salaries - from Belgrade has proceeded without a hitch, but questions of security and control remain.

A recently painted mural in downtown North Mitrovica reads: “Kosovo is Serbia, and Crimea is Russia.” But, one year since the Brussels-brokered April agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina was signed, all of Kosovo, including its predominantly-Serb municipalities in the north, are – at least nominally – under the control of the Kosovo Police.

The newly integrated officers have more than doubled the number of police in northern Kosovo’s four Serbian-majority municipalities to 530.

The chief of police for North Kosovo, Nenad Djuric, makes solving the problems between Kosovo and Serbia sound easy.

“A decision was made, we were given a deadline, we did our work,” he told Balkan Insight, when asked how it was possible in only three months to incorporate 284 policemen who for years had received their orders and their salaries from Belgrade, into the unit of the Kosovo police he runs.

“The problem is not in Mitrovica, it only depends on what is decided in Brussels,” he added.

Djuric’s position as regional commander, and that of his ethnic Albanian deputy, Besim Hoti, were spelled out as part of the year-old agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina. Djuric and Hoti share office space with the local police station and with a monitoring mission from EULEX, the European Union rule-of-law Mission.

Djuric said the increase in personnel since January had already lowered criminal activity in the region. “We can already see the results,” he maintained.

However, a string of recent violent incidents raises questions about just how much control the police have. Last September, a Lithuanian EULEX police officer was killed. No one has been charged for his murder.

On March 13, around 50 Kosovo Serbs stormed a police station to demand the release of a suspect detained by EULEX for disrupting public order. The man was released.

Then, on March 30, three members of the Kosovo police were wounded while conducting a routine patrol in the Zubin Potok municipality.

Last Friday, someone fired 25 bullets at an armoured EULEX vehicle carrying Polish members of the contingent as they traveled to the Brnjak border crossing in Zubin Potok municipality.

In Mitrovica itself, however, Kosovo policeman Jovica Drobnjak says integration has made his work, and the work of his team, easier.

“Before integration, there were only two or three police officers on duty at a time who had to cover the entire city,” he told Balkan Insight as he patrolled the town.

“Now, with our recently integrated colleagues,” he says glancing at his co- patrol officer, Milorad Mitrovic – who now takes orders from Pristina after 20 years spent under Serbia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs – “we have up to 14 officers around town, some on pedestrian control, others on road traffic monitoring.”

Hoti, who spent seven years as the regional spokesperson for the Kosovo police in Mitrovica before becoming deputy, said integration had proceeded without incident. “The respect as colleagues is there. The trust, of course, will be built, person by person,” he told Balkan Insight.

Unlike Hoti, Djuric drives a car with Belgrade license plates and travels to the Serbian capital regularly for meetings. But he took pains to emphasize that his orders, salary and all ultimate authority emanate from Prishtina.

Mitrovic said he had no problem accepting a new boss after 20 years of working for Belgrade. “Belgrade is not influencing my work any longer and that’s it,” he told Balkan Insight. “We are professional police officers.”

The process has not been without delays. The original implementation plan set a complete integration date for June 2013, but the Serbian government did not present a list of its police officers who could be integrated until December.

Employees in other sectors that were less explicitly dealt with in the Brussels agreement are still struggling. Mitrovica’s firefighters have not received a salary for four months. Taken off the Serbia-funded payroll and not yet incorporated into Kosovo’s pay structure, they are still awaiting pay cheques.

Although police integration has been more or less successful, and although the northern municipalities participated as stipulated in Kosovo-wide elections last November, there is no official resolution yet on other key parts of the agreement.

These include the composition of an Association of Serbian majority municipalities.

Statements from the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, and from politicians from Belgrade and Prishtina, indicate that a deal on the integration of judicial authorities will be inked at the next Brussels-facilitated meeting, but it remains unknown when that will take place.

Other key agreements made in the 2011-2012 technical dialogue preceding the Brussels Agreement, including on freedom of movement and diploma recognition, were interim deals awaiting final resolution by the end of 2014. This is concerning, Ilir Deda, executive director of the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development, said.

Without a resolution of these issues by then, they may have to be re-negotiated all over again in 2015, but the circumstances of negotiation will be different, Deda told a forum on the Brussels Agreement organized by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Belgrade.

Engjellushe Morina, co-founder of Prishtina Council on Foreign Relations, speaking at the same forum, raised the concern that under the ethnic quotas envisaged in the agreement, such as the proviso granting Djuric and Hoti their jobs, “Kosovo might end up more segregated than ever”.

Meanwhile, 350 kilometres from Belgrade, ordinary citizens in Mitrovica are trying to get used to the changes taking place around them.

Outside the entrance to the derelict Trepca, a complex of mines that once employed 23,000 people, Kosovo Police officers Drobnjak and Mitrovic, the latter in his new uniform, stop cars with Serbian license plates from Mitrovica. A teenager in one of the vehicles raises the Serbian three-finger salute.

“The people view us the same way as they do any police – they don’t like us!” joked officer Miodrag Lekic. “Well, they like us a bit more than they like EULEX,” he added.

01/05/2014 - 17:24

01 May 2014 - 17:24

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.