Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Police Take Over Serbia's Frontiers

Serbia marks another milestone in drive to meet EU standards, but question marks over border security move remain.
By Daniel Sunter

Serbia's police have started taking control of the country's borders from the army, marking a major step towards integration with European Union standards as well as reinforcing the drive against drug smuggling and human trafficking.

But some analysts have raised doubts about the new move, pointing out that it is insufficiently funded and that the police may be just as prone to the corrupt practices and lack of professionalism that afflicted army units deployed along the border.

Serbia is the last country in Europe where the army still guard the state border. The Communist-era practice continued under the Milosevic regime of the 1990s. Inexperience, low morale and corruption among military ranks meant that Serbia’s frontiers were some of the most porous in the Balkans, with drug- and human-traffickers breaching them almost at will.

The newly formed Serbian border police began taking over control of the frontier with Hungary from the Serbia and Montenegro Army, VSCG, last week.

The operation is to expand over the coming months to encompass the other neighbouring states.

Serbia shares land borders with Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Hercegovina and Macedonia.

The territory of Kosovo, which is under Serbian sovereignty (though not under its control), borders Albania.

The demilitarisation of the frontiers and the formation of a border police is one of the basic prerequisites that Belgrade must meet on its path to eventual EU membership.

The need to counter cross-border crime more effectively is seen as urgent, as Serbia has become a crossing point for most illegal traffickers bringing goods and people from the Near East and Asia to Western Europe.

The new move does not only entail the deployment of officers but the implementation of an entire new computerised system of controlling borders and crossings, known as Integrated Border Management, IBM.

This is designed to allow for a more efficient and simpler cross-border flow of people and goods while reinforcing the prevention of criminal activities.

The formation of the border police and the entire border control system is complicated and expensive, however, which is why Belgrade sought international assistance.

The OSCE led the way in coordinating the activities of the international community with the Serbian interior ministry.

OSCE officials say they’re satisfied with the level of cooperation with the Serbian police, its reform strategy and with the efforts it has invested in the creation of the new service.

"They did an incredible job and work in an efficient manner," Alessandra Manuguera, OSCE Border Policing Project manager in Belgrade, told IWPR. "Within seven months I have seen incredible developments."

Manuguera added, however, that more needed to be done. The new system is about a lot more than changing uniforms.

The old crossings are in poor shape, with outdated equipment and often no means to enable officials to exchange information.

But change will require funds that Belgrade can't drum up on its own, so the government is counting on continuing financial aid from foreign governments and international organisations.

The biggest donor so far has been the European Agency for Reconstruction, EAR - the body tasked by Brussels with managing the main EU assistance programmes in Serbia and Montenegro, Macedonia and Kosovo.

"We still have to rely on old traditional police methods and experience, but this can't go on for ever. We need a modern European border police. I only hope the international community will support the project, as we do not have the funds," one senior Serbian police officer told IWPR.

While the OSCE says it’s happy with the interior ministry’s preparations, they are contingent on funding. If international finance doesn’t materialise, then the police may fare as badly as the army countering smuggling, analysts say.

Border police may also suffer the same sort of problems as the military because members of disbanded army units are to be recruited into the new force.

The ex-soldiers will receive special training, but some observers question the logic of allowing troops who failed to curb smuggling to have their old jobs back, albeit under a different authority.

In order to ensure police officers joining the new force are not tainted by the corruption of the Milosevic era, they will also have to undergo special training. Moreover, the OSCE says the integrated nature of the border system will limit the possibility of fraud.

Analysts say that's all very well, but if Belgrade is unable to pay recruits properly they could become just as vulnerable to bribery as the army before them.

Daniel Sunter is a regular IWPR contributor.

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