A declaration by the Preševo municipal assembly calling for the “unconditional withdrawal” of the Gendarmerie highlights the extent of mistrust and insecurity felt in southern Serbia.
By Ian Bancroft
Following two serious incidents in recent weeks, including a grenade attack on two members of the Gendarmerie near Bujanovac and an explosion in a residential building in Preševo, the Preševo Municipal Assembly has called for an “unconditional withdrawal of Gendarmerie members from its territory”, motivated by what they describe as an “excessive use of force by police during searches of Albanian houses in the Preševo Valley”. In response, Ivica Dačić, Serbia’s Interior Minister, has reiterated that the Gendarmerie will remain so long as the threat of further terrorist attacks exists and called on all ethnic Albanian leaders and local communities to co-operate with the security forces in the interest of peace and stability throughout southern Serbia.
Following the latest string of incidents, Bujanovac Municipal President, Šaip Kamberi, vowed that Albanian leaders would consider quitting the Coordination Body “if the repression continues”, despite only recently re-affirming their commitment to the Body after an almost three-year absence. Kamberi’s accusations of repression were immediately rebuked by Milorad Veljović, the Director of the Serbian police, who argued that “it is in the interest of the people in the south of Serbia to understand that the Gendarmerie is there to guarantee their safety”. Countering another of Kamberi’s claims, Dačić has insisted that there are “no signs of a state of emergency” in southern Serbia, although he did confirm that the Gendarmerie have raised their alert level in the region. In addition, Veljović has spoken of apparent video recordings showing arms smuggling operations from Kosovo, involving a member of the Kosovo Police Service (KPS), which EULEX have been asked to investigate further.
Though Dačić has acknowledged that “Serbia was in the past accused mostly of using excessive force” and insisted that “the same mistake will not be allowed to repeat”, a keenly-felt sense of insecurity on the part of ethnic Albanians throughout southern Serbia – allied with statements such as those of Ragmi Mustafa, Preševo’s municipal president, accusing the Gendarmerie of ‘brutality’ – continue to breed the sort of tension and mistrust that further fuels the current instability.
These competing perspectives on the security situation in southern Serbia – with the Serbian government and security forces voicing their concerns about the escalating terrorist threat, whilst ethnic Albanian leaders accuse the Gendarmerie of brutality and repressive measures – demonstrate the need to strengthen institutional channels, such as the Coordination Body and the Municipal Safety Councils, through which to debate and address these respective security concerns. Though Dačić insists that operations by the Gendarmerie in southern Serbia were conducted in-line with the law and that “international security services were informed about them”, independent verification from civil society actors also provides an important counterpart that can help prevent the further deterioration of the situation in southern Serbia.