The Austrian politician who heads the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe, set up five years ago to coordinate foreign assistance in the war torn region, says 2005 will be a crucial year for the Balkans. Stability Pact coordinator Erhard Busek spoke at Washington D.C.'s Georgetown University.

Mr. Busek says 2004 has been a year of uneven progress in the Balkans. There's been significant economic growth in several countries and increased cooperation among the often feuding states that hope to eventually enter the European Union. Mr. Busek is confident that Bulgaria and Romania will join the EU on schedule in 2007, and he believes Croatia will not be far behind.

There are, says Mr. Busek, two problem areas. One is Bosnia Herzegovina, where two ethnic-based states are joined in uneasy unity. The other is what he calls the problem of Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. He is not optimistic about Serbia in the short-term, saying this important territory four years after the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic is still not politically stable.

"Decision making [in Serbia] is not present," he said. "And we always have the next elections to consider. And I think stability is really missing. Besides the fact that Serbia can [could] play an important role in the future."

Mr. Busek says Montenegro's future is uncertain. He suggests that the current weak union with Serbia is unlikely to endure. On Kosovo, Mr. Busek believes that the future status of the Albanian populated breakaway Serbian province must ensure the safety of the Serbian minority. He advocates early and serious negotiations between Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and he says a future status accord must be acceptable to Serbia.

"2005 will be a crucial year for the region," he said. "Concerning what is going on in Kosovo, concerning the internal future of Bosnia-Herzegovina, concerning the negotiations with the European Union, the stabilization and association agreements, [and] the opening of the negotiations with Croatia."

On Kosovo, Mr. Busek rejects partition, fearing that any new division of territory would have a deleterious domino effect throughout the region.

The Brussels-based Stability Pact has only 37 staff members. Its job is to promote dialogue and regional integration.