Independence strains Kosovo's police force

Ethnic Serbs have faced pressure from their own to quit since Kosovo's declaration.

Nebojsa Markovic/Reuters
Clash: Anti-independence riots this month in Mitrovica turned so violent that NATO took over, sent Kosovo Serb police away.

– In this ethnically Serbian enclave in northern Kosovo, Siniša Milić's blue sweater and badge are a sign of betrayal. Mr. Milić is a Serb, but as a member of the Kosovo Police Service (KPS), he's seen by his neighbors as a representative of a state they consider illegal.

Take, for example, the instance of two tractors stolen here on March 17, one month after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. Milić and his colleagues know about the theft but can't find anyone to help their investigation.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people here, they don't agree with the independence of Kosovo," he says. "So we try to explain to those people that it is better to have some sort of law and order than none of it. But we don't have the support of the people."

The small police station here – and the KPS more broadly – are a symbol of fragile hope for this divided nation. But Kosovo's Serb minority and their backers in Belgrade refuse to accept the institutions of an independent Kosovo, testing this delicate organization – one of the only institutions in Kosovo that has had some success integrating Serbs and Albanians.

Many believe Serbs would like to see Kosovo's Serb-dominated north partitioned. Last week, Serbia's foreign minister said that may be Kosovo's only hope – although a foreign office statement later said Serbia was not seeking formal partition, according to the Associated Press.

Eight Serb policemen work here alongside five Albanians. In the KPS as a whole, prior to the declaration of independence, about 10 percent of the 7,100 policemen were ethnically Serbian. In Priluze, as in other Serb enclaves, the police were the only Kosovar institution with any real presence. Hospitals, schools, and other institutions are still largely administered and funded by Serbia.

But after the Feb. 17 declaration, about 300 Serb police officers walked off the job and have been suspended. They say they agreed to work for the international community, not an independent Kosovo.

In the north of the country, where the UN has not yet completed the transfer of authority to local officials, Serbian officers have largely stayed in their posts. But earlier this month, UN police and the KPS pulled out of the northern half of Mitrovica for two days after clashes left a UN policeman dead and scores of other people injured. Many policemen who remain on active duty say they are under enormous pressure from their own communities to stop working for the police.

"There was a new reality that was created after Feb. 17 [that] brought about a new kind of tension," says Lt. Besim Hoti, a spokesman for the KPS in Mitrovica.

In the town of Graćanica, another Serb enclave just south of Kosovo's capital, Pristina, the police offices are still operating, but without any Serbian policemen. The KPS has sent in additional Albanian officers; there have been nearly daily protests in support of the Serb police.

The suspended police are not speaking to the media, but Dragan Velić, a local leader negotiating on their behalf, says they will only return to work under the authority of institutions outlined in UN Resolution 1244, which gave the international community control over Kosovo.

For now, Milić continues to show up for duty and work with his Albanian colleagues. Together they speak a hodge-podge of Albanian and Serbian, and they greet each other jovially on the street. They've become friends, he says, even across the chasms that divide this newly declared country. "When you work together every day, it's normal for you to become friends. We're ordinary people. We hope it will be better, when there is a political agreement."

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