Kosovo Road Rage

The launch of the Kosovo police force has not gone down well with some of the province's drivers.

Kosovo Road Rage

The launch of the Kosovo police force has not gone down well with some of the province's drivers.

Friday, 7 September, 2001

When Belgrade ruled Kosovo, Albanians boycotted the police force, which was despised as a tool of state oppression. Today, the new multi-ethnic force which polices the province is proving equally unpopular with some sections of the population. After a period of lawlessness, those who resent the strict new imposition of rules have taken to attacking policemen.

In August, 23 assaults were recorded by UNMIK. In most of the incidents, policemen were set upon after fining people for relatively minor offences, such as motoring violations. The fines rankle with many - and are a constant source of complaint.

"Some policemen will fine you 100 German marks for minor things," said one old man. "I am retired and I receive no pension. Because of these steep penalties I've decided to sell my car."

NATO's arrival and the sudden return of hundreds of thousands of people brought chaos to Kosovo. With no police control across the province, property was seized freely - both from Serbs and from the state - people stopped paying for electricity, water and other services and cars were parked at random, with no fear of penalty.

This made the establishment of a Kosovo Police Service an immediate priority. With international assistance from UNMIK, more than 3,758 new police have now completed a 12-week training course at the Police Academy in Vushtri/Vucitrn.

Around 84 per cent of the new force are Albanian and nine per cent Serb, with the remainder from other ethnic groups. Almost a fifth are women. The next set of graduates from the academy will bring the number of local police up to 4,200. Local officers are matched by a 4,000 strong UNMIK force. In serious cases the KFOR military police are brought in.

However, some analysts claim that the police were very slow to restore law and order, allowing a culture of impunity to set in. "If we do not obey the law and respect the police then we cannot build a civil and democratic society in Kosovo," said an elderly resident of Pristina, but the rising number of attacks show that respect for the law enforcers is slow in returning.

"I think these attacks happen because some citizens think we have no right to control them. Of course they are wrong, " said Lieutenant Colonel Bahri Spahiu from the Prizren region. "It could also be a hangover from the old days, when the Milosevic police were considered as an alien police force and an enemy. Things have changed completely since then, but not everyone has changed accordingly."

Spokesman for the general staff of the local force Fehmije Gashi-Bytyqi confirmed that most attacks are on men, irrespective of ethnicity. Police in Prizren and Pristina are at a higher risk of attack than colleagues elsewhere in the province and no members of the international UNMIK force have been assaulted. "The police will succeed if they uphold the law and collaborate with the citizens, " he said.

UNMIK police commissioner Christopher Albison insists that most of the population admire the local force, which saw six members promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel two weeks ago.

Head of the UN mission in Kosovo Hans Haekerup shares that view, "Serb citizens in northern Mitrovica are now ready for a real police force. And many Albanians in Kosovo are also tired of the violence and threats from certain criminal elements," he wrote recently in Koha Ditore.

The majority of Kosovars IWPR interviewed were positive about the police, "I enjoy seeing the local police on duty," said Rrahim Syla, a shopkeeper in Prizren. "They bear no resemblance at all to Milosevic's police who abused the population."

Currently, local police have little autonomy and are closely controlled by their UNMIK colleagues. After the general elections in mid-November, more authority will be ceded to them, but even then difficult cases - particularly those involving inter-ethnic relations - will remain in the hands of the international police.

Greater authority could lead to a rise in attacks, but that has not diminished the allure of a job in the force. Police recruits get paid reasonably well by Kosovo standards, but they could earn more money elsewhere. Despite this the latest admission test for 1,500 places at the police academy attracted 42,000 applicants - proof that in some quarters law and order is making a comeback.

Nehat Islami is IWPR's Project Editor in Pristina.

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