Impressions from the Field IV

In my previous blog entry Impressions from the Field III, I told the story of one man who was caught on account of his smuggling business. Smuggling, I noted, is common in and around Novi Pazar, and creates jobs. I also noted that smuggling is nothing out of the ordinary. People simply buy and sell counterfeited goods as they do other items.

I too browsed through the shops where forged Luis Vuitton, Channel and Ives Saint Laurent items stood on display next to tracksuits from Nike and Adidas and soon showed interest for one of the various wallets. “You know”, said the young shopkeeper as he watched me fiddling with the purse, “these wallets come from Turkey, those are the best imitations you will find”. The imitation was good indeed. The price was too. The price for the replica is €10 as opposed to the original for which one has to shell out around €500. This was not the last time I was told about the superiority of Turkish counterfeited goods. “We don’t sell Chinese goods here”, said another lady in a store in Novi Pazar’s center. “The quality of our Turkish products is pretty good and we never have any complaints from our customers”, she said, adding, “our boss always personally selects the items for our store on his travels to Turkey”.

Looking up at the Mosque were Police presence is at times strong at the close of communal prayers

However, should Serbia pursue EU accession, Belgrade will have to enforce the controversial Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) that strictly prohibits the reproduction and sale of copyrighted materials and brands. Where then, I asked in my previous blog, are the police in all this?

The police have a strong presence in Novi Pazar. I noticed them most often close by the mosque in the city center nearby the old bakeries and their presence seemed to grow whenever believing devotees streamed out after their communal prayer. Perhaps the police seek to reduce the possibility of clashes through their presence after two rivaling Islamic groups clashed in front of Novi Pazar’s Altum-Alem Mosque in 2007. Yet, the police are not in all circles viewed as a protective force and their presence is at times interpreted with ambivalence.

During conversations and structured interviews in Novi Pazar, I asked what should be done to improve life in this southern Serbian region. The answers where often of similar nature and connected with Novi Pazar’s police. “Life in this region”, I was told in a conversation with a young man in one of the retail booths that line Novi Pazar’s streets, “would be better if the police would punish people who do something wrong”. I don’t understand what you mean, I said. “Look”, he explained, “people who commit crimes here do not get punished sufficiently. Somebody can draw a knife or a gun, threaten a person, and get away with it”. In another conversation, I was told that life in this region would be better if the police would no longer except, or expect bribes to look past one’s offense.

Novi Pazar’s main road is lined with Vendor Booths


Another common theme was the ethnic composition of the police force. “Most of the police officers are Serbian, you know? Between 80% and 90% of all people that live here are Bosniaks and/or Muslims and yet, the police forces are almost 100% composed of ethnic Serbs, why?”; I was asked of a young man who studies at Novi Pazar’s state University. “Should there not be some sort of an equivalence between the police force and the people on whose behalf they supposedly work?” Consequently, the police are viewed as the long arm of Serbia’s state and not necessarily as the ‘friend and helper’ of the local population. Not surprisingly, graffiti slurs often adorn the walls with the acronym A.C.A.B. – All Cops Are Busted. But what do the police think about their ambivalent role among Novi Pazar’s community?


All Cops Are Busted

A senior police official was to give me some answers about how he sees his, and the role of the police forces in Novi Pazar. I waited somewhat nervously in the lobby to be let in to the policeman’s office and anticipated to meet an official in a stiff, blue suit. Instead, a relaxed police officer in jeans and polo shirt greeted me friendly. “There are problems in this town, you know? But problems in this town are not as bad as the media portray them”, he told me.

“It is true that there are more Serbs that serve in the police forces here in Novi Pazar, yet the problem is the following; The men who serve here in the police are not from Novi Pazar. There are men from all over the country because we function according to a rotation principal. One man from Novi Sad may one day enroll to serve but he will not work in Novi Sad, he will come down here, or go to Smederevo or Banatski Karlovac. There might be more Bosniak policemen around, but they serve anywhere in Serbia, and not necessarily here. Look”, he said, “two percent of Serbia’s population are Bosniak and 98% are Serb; We have to look at the big, nationwide picture, and not only at what goes on around here. We are a national, and not a regional institution.” The exchange was thought provoking because I did not know, or think about a rotation principle by which one enrolls in one city or region but has to serve in another altogether. Yet, the police then truly appear to be the long arm of the Serbian state – a state from which the Bosniak population feels alienated. The disconnect is therefore apparent, even though I am sure that the police official does not harbor cruel intentions – to the contrary.

The police official made me understand the complexity of the situation as he explained that he walks a fine line in his job. “I do not talk to a Bosniak or a Serb when I have to solve a problem”, he clarified, “I talk to a resident of Novi Pazar and a citizen of Serbia. I try to do my job as best as I can, and I believe that the people of this town know and appreciate my work.”

The policeman and I did not talk about counterfeit goods this day, nor did we talk about them on any other day. Perhaps he had more pressing problems on his mind.