The year 2005 saw some significant steps toward the launch of final status negotiations for Kosovo, the majority ethnic Albanian province that since 1999 has been administered by the United Nations. Developments in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia have raised hopes for closer links between those countries and the European Union. VOA's Barry Wood takes a look at some of the key developments in the region over the past year, and what likely lies ahead in 2006.
U.S. and European Union officials say Kosovo is the major piece of unfinished business from the destructive 1990s Yugoslav wars of independence.
Ninety-five percent of Kosovo's population is ethnic Albanian, and most strongly favor independence, with Serbs comprising less than five percent. Serbia, with much of its religious and cultural heritage connected to Kosovo, opposes independence.
Nicholas Pano, an American of Albanian descent, is a professor of European history at Western Illinois University. Mr. Pano says it will be exceedingly difficult to craft a solution acceptable to both Kosovar Albanians and Serbia, but suggests independence is inevitable.
"I think that any settlement short of independence - and it may not be immediate independence, it could be a process leading to Kosova 's independence - I think would be unacceptable to the people of Kosova, and I think even to some of the surrounding countries," he said.
Professor Pano believes a settlement will probably have to be imposed, as the differences between Serbia and the Kosovo Albanians appear irreconcilable.
That view is shared by Vladimir Matic, a Serbian-born professor of political science at Clemson University in South Carolina. He says the problem is that both Albanians and Serbs view Kosovo's settlement as a zero sum game, in which one side wins and the other loses.
"Yes, of course, it will have to be imposed on both," he said. "What will have to be imposed on Serbia is the loss of sovereignty over Kosovo. Whether right now, or more likely, in a process gradually. And what will have to be imposed on Albanians is a return of the Serbs, and protection and the rights of Serbs as a minority in Kosovo."
Late in the year, the United Nations Security Council named former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari as its chief negotiator to determine Kosovo's final status. Negotiations begin in January and could continue all year.
Also in 2006, Montenegro, the sparsely populated territory on the Adriatic Sea, is likely to decide whether to retain its loose link with Serbia. Montenegro's provincial government seeks full independence, and citizens will vote on independence in a referendum tentatively scheduled for mid-year.
All of the nations in the western Balkans wish to join the European Union.
In mid-December, the European Union accepted Macedonia as a candidate for membership. EU Expansion Commissioner Olli Rehn called the decision a political signal to the countries of the western Balkans that the European Union will build ties with those states, if they fulfill EU requirements.
Historian Thomas Emmert, a Balkans specialist at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, says EU membership is the best way to assure stability in the Balkans.
"The only word that is really operable for this whole region is integration, and, particularly, as we look at Europe as a whole," he said. "And anything that moves towards that integration is not only necessary, but absolutely and immediately important. We have to move toward integrating this region economically and politically into the greater European arena. And there is no other alternative."
Professor Emmert says a very positive development in 2005 was the acceptance of measures that will strengthen the weak central government in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The 1995 peace agreement that ended the conflict divided the country into a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb Republic, and gave far-reaching powers to regional authorities, with a rotating three-man presidency representing each of the three ethnic groups.
"I think we are seeing serious efforts at resettlement of displaced wartime populations, which was not the case three or four years ago," he said. "Certainly there is movement towards further integration within Bosnia of all parts of Bosnia."
However, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia-Montenegro and Croatia have been given notice that they will not be considered for membership in Western institutions, until indicted war criminals are turned over to the U.N. tribunal in The Hague.
In December, fugitive Croatian General Ante Gotovina was arrested in Spain and sent to The Hague.
The two most-wanted fugitives, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his war-time military commander, Ratko Mladic, remain at large.