2006: A decisive year for the Balkans

Experts are forecasting a whirl of diplomatic activity in the Balkans in the coming months, making 2006 a decisive year for the war-torn region.

Splintered by ethnic conflicts in the 1990s, segments of the former Yugoslavia are pushing for solutions to the legacies of those years. Several states in the region are moving toward EU membership.

Developments may include the creation of two new countries, as Kosovo and Montenegro look to break away from Serbia. It could also mean a makeover for Bosnia-Herzegovina.

And many hope Serbia, like Croatia, will round up the last of its war crimes suspects: the UN war crimes tribunal's two most-wanted suspects are thought to be hiding in Serbia more than a decade after being indicted for genocide during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

What's going to happen with Kosovo?

Though the province is still technically part of Serbia, the UN has been running it since the fighting ended in 1999. The majority Kosovar Albanians want independence, while the minority Serbs want to remain part of Serbia. The Serbs envision carving the province into Serb and Albanian areas - a model tried in Bosnia, which is still not fully sovereign more than a decade after the guns fell silent.

In November, UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari came to the region to lay the groundwork for talks that were supposed to start on Jan. 25. But Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova's death last week delayed the talks, now expected to begin this month. Absent a strong leader like Mr. Rugova, Kosovar Albanian politicians are again jockeying for seats on the negotiating team.

It's likely that the majority Albanians will have to give some power to the Serb minority, and agree to some oversight from the UN or the European Union, giving the province conditional independence. While Kosovo's constant power and water outages may not make it Europe's most viable new state, independence would remove the threat of a new war posed by any handover of Kosovo to Serbia.

Why does Montenegro want independence?

As the other Yugoslav republics broke ranks in the early 1990s, Montenegro's 650,000 people stuck with Serbia. But while Serbia's former president Slobodan Milosevic - now in his fourth year on trial at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague - fought and lost three wars, ruining Serbia's economy and international standing, Montenegro adopted the euro and ran its own internal and foreign affairs.

The republic got its own dubious reputation as a kleptocracy, however, as media reported on Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic's alleged involvement in the lucrative Balkan cigarette-smuggling trade. But the EU now says that Montenegro has made some small improvements in the rule of law and the fragile economy, and has more of the characteristics of a country than it did even three years ago.

When the EU brokered Serbia-Montenegro's constitution in 2003, it was reluctant to encourage the redrawing of more borders in the Balkans. But now officials admit that Serbia-Montenegro isn't working. The EU's concern now is that any referendum on independence - an option both Serbia and Montenegro have this year, after three years under the EU constitution - be held legally and fairly.

The EU has sent Slovak diplomat Miroslav Lajcak to negotiate between Mr. Djukanovic's pro-independence faction, which is planning a referendum for April, and the pro-Serbia opposition led by Predrag Bulatovic. They will decide on what the turnout will have to be for the referendum to be valid.

Three presidents running Bosnia?

Since the end of the 1992-1995 war, Bosnia has been made up of two ethnic halves - the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serb Republic - held together by a loose central government and three presidents.

The international community here also has a powerful role. Its head, the so-called high representative who answers to a group of mostly Western countries overseeing the peace agreement, can fire officials and impose laws.

Though the fourth and most recent high representative, Britain's Paddy Ashdown, said when he arrived nearly four years ago that his job was to put himself out of a job, he fell short of being able to create strong state institutions such as a unified police force. Bosnia's new high representative, Germany's Christian Schwarz-Schilling, says his No. 1 priority is to make sure Bosnia moves closer to the EU.

But EU officials have said that Bosnia needs a strong government that can properly negotiate agreements with the Union. US-approved efforts to convince Bosnian politicians to get rid of the three presidents and to give more power to the central government and parliament, however, broke down in mid-January.

It's still uncertain whether the parties will agree by March - the deadline for any reforms to affect October's general election - or whether the divisions will hold for another four years.

Moving toward the EU

Macedonia's relative success with a 2001 power-sharing agreement that narrowly averted civil war resulted in the EU awarding the country formal candidate status in December.

Croatia will this year continue its accession talks with the EU. Croatia cleared its last stumbling block in early December with the arrest of its last war crimes suspect, Ante Gotovina, a former general indicted in 2001 for involvement in the wartime killings of Serb civilians.

Meanwhile, the EU has signaled that Serbia's failure to turn over former Bosnian Serb political and military leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic is jeopardizing its chances for future membership.

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