Overcoming Trust Issues in North of Kosovo after the Banjska Incident

12 tetor 2023 13:34

Artikulli i përkthyer.

The Banjska attack gravely deteriorated the security situation in the north of Kosovo, garnering global attention. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić attempted to tone down his rhetoric with foreign media outlets. However, despite a softer stance in his interviews, the portrayal of the Banjska attack in Serbian media remained unchanged and is subject to state propaganda.

The aftermath of the Banjska attack raises concerns about maintaining peace in the north of Kosovo, with divergent narratives between Belgrade and Pristina making a security agreement unlikely.

The distrust between local Serbs and the Kosovo Police, exacerbated by media portrayals and incidents of police misconduct, remains a significant challenge, and a potential solution involves the return of the local Serbs to Kosovo Police and other institutions.

The Attack in Banjska: Vučić in Serbian Media vs. International Media

The Banjska shooting made global headlines that were detrimental to Serbia’s international reputation. Consequently, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić felt compelled to respond to the allegations of sponsoring and supporting terrorist activities in northern Kosovo.

President Vučić has lately conducted a couple of widely noticed interviews with foreign foreign media outlets, including CNN and Sky News. This appeared somewhat unusual as Vučić seldom ventures out of his comfort zone by speaking to journalists other than those who come from vetted pro-government media.

President Vučić’s conversations with international correspondents are among rare occasions when he slightly tones down his otherwise highly inflammatory rhetoric. This typically occurs when he attempts to engage in damage control.

This was made evident during the Sky News interview when the interviewer pointed out to him: “What you say to the foreign media is very different to what you say to your own media.“ Indeed, President Vučić did not take the opportunity to reiterate his blunt accusations against Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti for “organizing ethnic cleansing with the support of part of the international community” which he made following the meeting with the Russian Ambassador to Serbia in Belgrade a few days earlier.

Instead, Vučić vaguely took the blame upon himself for naively trusting the guarantees from the international community. A completely different answer to what he gave to the local media.

The portrayal of the Banjska incident in the mainstream Serbian media remained rather unaltered. The tone was set through the statements of Vučić and other state officials in the wake of the event and has continued to shape the narrative since.

For the Serbian audience, the attack in Banjska was presented as a struggle for freedom and survival. According to the prevalent narrative in the Serbian media, the tensions in the north of Kosovo flared up due to the unbearable repression of the local Serb population at the hands of the special units of the Kosovo Police.

The attack in Banjska was the climax of surging desperation. Although Belgrade denied any role in the violence, clear condemnation did not ensue. Instead, a day of mourning was declared. Moreover, the international community was called out for condoning the purported persecution of Serbs.

The Banjska attack was undeniably perpetrated by a Serb armed group. Nonetheless, Serbia’s officials constructed a narrative that portrayed the incident as proof of their previous claims about the destabilizing role of the Kosovo Police in the north of Kosovo. Accordingly, the request was made that KFOR assume responsibility for all security issues in the northern municipalities, thereby replacing Kosovo institutions.

The lingering security and institutional vacuum in the north of Kosovo

Apart from the issue of holding accountable those responsible for the illegal arms possession and the murder of one Kosovo police officer and wounding of another, the aftermath of the Banjska incident raises a pressing question about maintaining peace and security in the north of Kosovo.

The opposing narratives regarding the attack provide no reassurance that Belgrade and Pristina will be able to agree on the security arrangement that would prevent the outbreak of violence in the future.

Few would disagree that the security situation in the north of Kosovo deteriorated following the collective resignations of local Serbs from Kosovo institutions in November 2022. The institutional and security vacuum that took hold in the north of Kosovo thereafter served as a breeding ground for illegal activities.

Despite encouraging Serbs to vacate their positions in Kosovo Police, Serbia has since argued that the structure of the police in the north of Kosovo was in breach of the 2013 Brussels Agreement which stipulated that the police units should reflect the ethnic composition of the population.

Nonetheless, all attempts to re-appoint Serbs in the ranks of Kosovo Police have been thwarted. This is shown in the case of Serbs from northern municipalities who joined the Kosovo Police in the summer only to resign shortly afterward.

Pushbacks from Belgrade and the local community were reported as reasons for the short-lived appointment of new police officers. In general, Serbs who wanted to re-engage with Kosovo institutions faced backlash and were labeled as traitors.

Notwithstanding the downright inability of the regular Kosovo Police to perform its duties in the north of Kosovo, Belgrade has also complained about the presence of special police units in the area.

Time and time again, it was inaccurately repeated by Serbian officials that the deployment of special police units of Kosovo Police in the north of Kosovo requires KFOR authorization.

However, such claims were refuted on numerous occasions by the KFOR officials, who clarified that their prior authorization only refers to the potential deployment of the Kosovo Security Forces in the north of Kosovo. Nonetheless, Serbia continued to contend that the presence of the special police units in four northern municipalities is unlawful.

Bridging the security and institutional gap

The constant portrayal of the Kosovo Police in the mainstream Serbian media as a hostile force has left a mark on the mindset of the local Serb population in the north of Kosovo.

Kosovo Serbs generally feel distrustful towards the special police units and fear possible retaliation for the Banjska attack. Truth be told, local Serbs have themselves reported cases of police brutality and misconduct which reinforced their overall negative view of the Kosovo Police.

However, it is concerning that they do not consider pursuing accountability of the police officers in question when such incidents occur, by resorting to reporting and complaint mechanisms. Instead, their only expectation is that special police units will eventually be removed from the north of Kosovo altogether.

The only viable option for ensuring order and security in north Kosovo would entail the return of the local Serbs to the Kosovo Police and other institutions. However, such an outcome seems far-fetched considering the inflammatory language of Serbia’s officials and the pressure faced by those Serbs who want to cooperate with the Kosovo institutions.

Since the return of Serbs to Kosovo institutions is not in sight, Kosovo authorities, alongside international missions such as KFOR and EULEX, should consider ways to promote confidence-building between police and the local population.

Given that the Kosovo Police is likely to expand its activities in the north of Kosovo, the gap between its units and local Serbs can widen even further unless actions are taken to alleviate fear and distrust and counter and the spread of disinformation from the government-controlled media in Serbia.

Enhancing the trust of the Serbs in the north towards Kosovo Police and addressing their concern should thus be paramount to reduce the influence of hardliners who might try to exploit the volatility of the situation to their ends, as the Banjska attack clearly illustrates.

12 tetor 2023

Ognjen Gogic