Spring came with unrest in Kosovo in 2004. Acts of violence against Serbs and their property were a reminder of the explosive situation there, with the population frustrated over the status-quo and strong tensions between the Albanian majority and Serb minority.
Stephen Larrabee, director of European Security Issues at the RAND Corporation, says Kosovo was only the most severe of the problem in the Balkans last year. "I think first and the most important was the unrest in Kosovo because that underscored the degree to which Kosovo continues to remain unstable, and it puts, I think, the issue of Kosovo status more squarely on the table," says Mr. Larrabee.
Franz-Luthar Altman, director of the Balkans section at the German Institute of International and Security Affairs in Berlin, agrees. "These clashes, these unfortunate happenings in Kosovo in march certainly marked a reversal of thinking in the heads of many westerners, thinking or rethinking that the Kosovo issue is still unresolved. And it started heavy controversial discussions among the people in the West and international community on what to do in the near future with Kosovo as the core issue for the western Balkans."
Franz-Luthar Altman says security in the region has been an enduring issue since the beginning of the 1990’s. "There are still many uncertainties deriving from unresolved political problems, as in Macedonia between the Albanians and the Slav Macedonians and in Kosovo. But on the other hand, I think we should also see that there have been improvements on the overall security situation in the Balkans, and over the years we have now achieved a general situation where those bellicose conflicts as before cannot be imagined again," says Mr. Altman.
Analysts agree that one of the most important issues - if not the most important - for the Balkans in 2005 will be consideration of the final status of Kosovo. U.N. plans call for a decision to be made in mid-2005. The United Nations has governed Kosovo since 1999 after an 11-week NATO bombing campaign to halt Serb repression of the Albanian population. Kosovo's 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority demands independence, while Belgrade insists that it remain part of Serbia.
Martin Sletzinger, director of East European Studies at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, stresses the connection between security needs and European integration of the Balkans. "I think that the Europeans, at least some in Europe, feel that really the process of European integration and stability in the South-East Europe and the Balkans amounts to one and the same thing: the European integration process would underscore stability".
Mr. Sletzinger suggests that work toward European integration go hand to hand with that on Kosovo’s future status to avoid instability in the region, if the province gains independence. Stability is key says Mr. Sletzinger, now that a serious effort has started both within the European Union and in the Balkans to bring those states closer to Europe. He considers this effort the most important development in the Balkans in 2004.
"I think it is generally recognized among all these countries that that’s the future and that’s the content and the framework in which both their domestic development and international relations with each other and with America, and with the rest of Europe is posited, or it’s based, it’s European integration," says Mr. Sletzinger.
Mr. Altman of the German Institute of International and Security Affairs says that after EU enlargement last year, the Balkans destiny is now Brussels, headquarters of the European Union. "I think the main development was the enlargement of May 1st, which only marginally on the surface touched also the Balkans, but which certainly will have some consequences because Slovenia is now a member of the EU, and it’s for sure that the other two countries or even three countries if you take Croatia will also join EU".
But Stephen Larrabee of RAND corporation says although the Balkan countries are headed toward the EU, it is not going to happen any time soon. "I don’t really see much prospect of any country becoming a member besides Croatia before another decade. The EU has a lot on its plate right now, including the ratification of the constitution, integration of 10 new members and accession negotiations with Turkey. So all these developments mean the EU faces has a lot of other issues, which is likely to make it much more difficult for them to push forward with the integration of western Balkans," says Mr. Larrabee.
While Croatia has been invited to negotiate for the membership in the European Union, Macedonia has signed a Stabilization and Association agreement that prepares countries for integration. For Albania, progress in negotiations for the same agreement depends very much on general elections to be held this year. Meanwhile, Montenegro is preparing for a referendum in 2006 for independence from the current loose federation, the union of Serbia and Montenegro. That is yet one more contentious issue facing the Balkans in 2005.