Kosovo’s security services in transition

MITROVICA – Less and less foreign soldiers in Kosovo. Photo: Jordi Wolf

The power of foreign organizations KFOR (NATO) and EULEX (European Union) is decreasing and the power of the national police is increasing. The country is already setting up its own army but incidents sometimes limit plans for the future. 

It is March  26th. In broad daylight, Marko Djuric is arrested in Mitrovica, a city in the north of Kosovo. Djuric, a Serbian politician who also performs work in Kosovo is now being held by two men and taken to an armoured car. He stayed in the northern part of the city, the part where most Serbs live. Bystanders look surprised by the performance of the Kosovar police.

While the politician is dragged across the street by an arrest team who are unrecognizable by the black hats they wear, some bystanders whistle to show their dissatisfaction. People seem surprised because Djuric came here often. Why is he being arrested now? What is different than before?

The official statement is that Djuric did not have permission from Kosovo to travel to the country at that time. According to the authorities, he had previously received a warning about this. The way Djuric was arrested creates particular confusion. “It was a play,” says a Serbian barman who hears me talk about the arrest.

It is an example of how the youngest country in Europe is struggling with its past. The country is in a transition phase. A lot of power is being transferred from NATO and European agencies to national authorities such as the police and the Kosovo Security Force (KSF).

Different security services with a different approach

When you walk through the streets of Mitrovica you will see several security services passing by. One stricter service and then others that appear more accessible. When having a drink on one of the terraces overlooking the bridge that divides the city into north and south, you can distinctly see the difference. On the northern side, live mostly Serbs and in the south, Albanians. The bridge is alternately guarded by the various authorities.

When the NATO troops of KFOR are guarding the bridge, there seems to be a more relaxed atmosphere. An old man with a walking stick and a bowed back, pass the soldiers of KFOR. He crosses the bridge from the southern to the northern side. Two children are walking in front of him, I decide they are his grandchildren. The soldiers laugh at the man and salute him. The man laughs back, asks a question to the soldiers and continues his walk to the other side of the bridge.

When the Kosovar police guard the bridge, there are strict guidelines to follow. There is no contact with the police. No salute to bystanders, however, I do watch the police approach two Serbian children sitting on a bench on the Albanian side of the city.

Sitting on the handrail, the pair has their feet on the seat of the bench instead of on the ground ‘where they belong’. Even though I couldn’t hear the interaction, when the policeman gestured to the boys I assumed they were being scolded. Once they put their feet on the ground, I was sure. Of course, this is not hard evidence, but it is noticeable when you walk around here. This is just one of many examples.

 After crossing the bridge to the Serbian side, KFOR soldiers disappear whilst flags and local police are abundantly visible. Photo: Jordi Wolf

The new KFOR mission

KFOR has been in Kosovo since 1999 to provide a safe and secure environment. The mission started with about 55,000 soldiers. That number has declined more and more over the years. At the moment, there are still about 4,000 KFOR soldiers in Kosovo, indicating which phase the country is in now.

The power must be transferred. According to KFOR Colonel Fischer, the national authorities are making great progress.

”What is important to realize is that KFOR is no longer in charge here. We are the third responsible party. In the beginning, KFOR was responsible for everything, that is no longer the case. Now the Kosovar police are firstly responsible and the European mission is second.”

According to the Colonel, there is good cooperation between all of the different agencies and they even hold certain training sessions together. “At the moment we are mainly here to talk to people. It is important that we know the history and culture of the country, that will help you with your job,” says Fischer.

This is the third time the Colonel has been posted to Kosovo. He was here in 1999 when the war was starting. In 2010, he saw the country wrestle with its past. This resulted in many riots between the Serbs and Albanians in the city of Mitrovica. According to Fischer, the country has been slowly developing and improved infrastructure has been added, bringing people closer together.

The Serbian side of the bridge remains under construction. Local police have a friendly presence on the Serbian side as they roam the centre strip leading to and from the bridge.  Photo: Jordi Wolf

KFOR monitors the environment

As mentioned, one of KFOR’s most important tasks is to go into the neighbourhoods and talk to people, see what the situation is and if necessary let the police know if something is not in order. The soldiers call it monitoring. One of the soldiers in the monitor team is John Bochitis (26).

I sit opposite John and ask him about his duties here. He tells me about the many conversations he has with the residents in the city of Mitrovica. He brightens up when he talks about conversations he’s had.

“It’s nice to see how people tell you more when they get to know you better. I have been here now for 2 months and people greet me more and more on the street. That makes working easier if you need information from people,” says Bochitis.

Bochitis mainly works in the northern part of the city and therefore has to deal mostly with Serbians. Jernej Starič, one of his colleagues, works in a part of Mitrovica where both Serbs and Albanians live. Starič is of Slovenian origin and because of this, he speaks Serbian well. That helps him with his work. He uses a translator for the Albanian language.

”I mainly deal with VIPs. Mayors and police commanders. So I have a lot of contact with the different parties who are in charge. And you see that the police and other organizations are getting better every day in carrying out their duties,” he says.

Kosovo wants KSF to become national army force

Kosovo tries to give as many tasks as possible to their own people. For example, the country would like to have its own army that will eventually take over the tasks of KFOR. The Kosovo Security Force (KSF) must take over these tasks. But not everyone is positive about this. The Serbs in particular still see the KSF as an Albanian organization that finishes the independence of the country.

Ibrahim Shala from KSF says that you can not say that all Serbs are against KSF as Kosovo’s new army force. ”We have more than 10% of our organization consisting of minorities. More than 5% consists of Serbs. So you can not say that all Serbs are against us, according to Shala.

He is happy with the cooperation between KSF, KFOR and other international armed forces. According to Shala KSF has an increasingly professional setting and will once be ready to become the national armed forces of Kosovo.

Even though Kosovo’s national institutions are becoming more professional, KFOR Colonel Grasov thinks that the help of international organizations will still be needed in coming years.  He was a bit surprised about the arrest of Djuric. According to him, the dialogue between Serbs and Albanians was underway and the Serbian politician had visited Mitrovica frequently.

‘’It was really not the first time Djuric came to Kosovo. I do not know why they deny him now. You read different versions of that story. Our task is to keep people calm. And we did that.

“In the end, this country must continue on his own. I do not know when we leave, that’s not up to me. But at this moment the decision to stay is clear, saying otherwise would give you the wrong signal,” says Grasov.

Police are a prominent feature on the Serbian side between the bridge and the Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović monument, a symbol of cultural protection. Photo: Jordi Wolf