Discontent Brewing in the Ranks of the Serbian Police

Anna Husarska is a political analyst at the International Crisis Group

The problem with Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic (“Slobo” to friends and foes alike) is that he does not keep his promises. The Contact Group and Richard Holbrooke know it; Boris Yeltsin is about to learn it. In Moscow, Slobo did not promise to withdraw his police from the embattled province of Kosovo, but this may be less of a problem than it appears.

Given the desperate economic situation in Serbia, a vacancy notice that offers a job that makes a man “skillful, brave and resolute” would seem a sure winner. The hitch? The job is that of a cop.

Until recently, being a Serbian policeman was relatively attractive, and being sent to Kosovo was also lucrative, if slightly boring: room-and-board, high per diems, special premium for nonfamily posting. There was an occasional stone thrown by an ethnic Albanian and some teenager may have a spat, but cops from Serbia run the show “down there.”

Since 1996, when the Kosovo Liberation Army, which refers to itself with the Albanian acronym UCK, started attacking the “stooges of the oppressor regime,” the job is not so boring (or cozy) anymore. This year there were more than 400 attacks by the UCK, of which 149 were against Serbian police. Eighteen police officers were killed; others live in constant fear of being next. A month ago, I had my own encounter with a Serbian cop in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. I committed a minor traffic violation and a cop went ballistic, threatening to arrest me for three months. I evoked our common Slavic roots (a tested trick) and the target of his anger switched to his superiors, who had sent him on a tour of duty in Kosovo (or how else should I interpret his final shot “What the heck am I doing down here?”)


Many cops seem to be asking themselves the same question. Ever since Slobo launched his police forces on a crackdown of Kosovo’s region of Drenica, policemen are increasingly refusing to go “down there” and many resign. In the town of Kragujevac, the Ministry of Interior had to suspend 11 officers and two asked that their contract be terminated because none wanted to go “down there.”

This is not simply draft-dodging, which can appeal to the best of us. It is a career-ending move by several hundred “skillful, brave and resolute” Serbs; 90 of those stalwarts are said to be graduates from a special police academy.

In the heat of the front-line reports, this phenomenon has gotten little attention. Serbia is a surreal place in its own right, but that cops would be the first Serbs to rebel against Slobo may indicate that the police ranks have not closed behind him as tightly as he thinks.

The monument to the 1389 Serb defeat in the battle at Kosovo Polje bears this curse as its inscription: “Whoever is a Serb and of Serb origin and does not come to fight in Kosovo, may he not have any descendants, neither male nor female.” (Curse or not, the average Serb couple has 0.9 children, whereas 2.2 are necessary for simple population reproduction.)


The ethnic Albanian UCK guerrillas who consider themselves freedom fighters have no problems recruiting. Their statement, in the Pristina Albanian-language daily Koha Ditore, appealed to “all men between 18 and 55 to join the ranks of the struggle for the country’s liberation.” The self-styled Kosovo government-in-exile is fund-raising because “it is vital to financially mobilize all Albanians to confront their priority needs for survival and to defend our people.” Meanwhile, the north of Albania is said to look like a military K-Mart.

Back in Pristina there is an epidemic of “trigger happiness.” Young men think it unpatriotic not to go to Albania and fetch a gun. UCK is open in its appeal: “Men who have sent their families to Albania [as refugees] should return as soon as possible to defend the country. Any failure to come to Kosovo now means abandoning the lofty task of liberating the homeland.” (No curse on procreation needed here: Albanians in Kosovo have the highest birthrate in the whole of Europe, providing ample cannon fodder.)

The UCK’s donkey-smuggled Kalashnikovs may not be a match for Slobo’s police and military might, but UCK fighters are champing at the bit, whereas Slobo’s cops are increasingly playing hooky.