Dramatic 2008 beckons for Balkans
By Nick Thorpe BBC News
Among the many strange ironies of history, consider this: the independence of Kosovo in the first half of 2008 will be overseen by Slovenia, as rotating president of the EU.
The richest corner of the old Yugoslavia - and the first to escape from it in 1991 - will steer, from Brussels, the rocky road to independence of its poorest segment.
It took Yugoslavia, that once amiable giant, 17 years to die.
2008 is set to be a dramatic year in the Balkans, though probably not as tragic as some prophesy.
Kosovo, Bosnia, and Macedonia all have intricate safety nets, thanks both to the international presence and the experience gathered in many previous storms.
Serbia has perhaps the greatest potential for international isolation and misery.
The new government and assembly in Kosovo will begin quietly implementing the Ahtisaari plan for conditional independence, despite the sometimes dignified, sometimes desperate, protests of Belgrade.
Kosovo Police Service
The European Union will rapidly phase in its civilian, 1,800-strong law and justice mission, just as the UN phases out.
A poll win for Tomislav Nikolic could damage Serbia's EU hopes
The crucial role in ensuring a peaceful transition to independence will be played by the multi-ethnic Kosovo Police Service (KPS).
The 7,000-strong force, with many Serbs in its ranks, will be in the frontline at a local level, reassuring people with their presence, and searching cars to minimise the movement of weapons.
Behind them the UN police - in place until mid-2008 - can provide extra muscle.
And, finally, the Nato-led peacekeepers of K-For are on call to intervene if law and order breaks down. But that may not be necessary.
If Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party wins January's presidential elections, the potential for Serbia's public anger, and international isolation grows exponentially
As Kosovo slips quietly away, radical Serb leaders in the predominantly Serb north will declare that they want nothing to do with an independent Kosovo.
Theirs is above all a defensive position. They will prepare for "Albanian attacks". But the Albanians will be on their best behaviour, under the watchful eyes of the EU.
The KPS, UN police force, and K-For will continue to patrol in the north too. UN Security Council resolution 1244 speaks of both an "international civilian and military presence".
EU countries and the US say that is quite enough to legalise the new EU mission.
President Boris Tadic of Serbia has already announced that his country will, quite properly, take its case to the International Court of Justice.
Serbia's promised economic blockade will affect less than 20% of Kosovo's imports, and can be sidestepped easily with increased imports from Macedonia, Montenegro and Albania.
Threats to cut off the water and electricity supply from the Gazivoda reservoir in the north are serious, but would rebound on the north.
Water is treated in the south, then sent back. KFOR soldiers are set to secure the reservoir.
The central question of the year is how Serbia copes with the trauma of the loss of Kosovo.
Kosovan towns such as Mitrovica are divided over independence
The presidential election due on 20 January will influence that.
If Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party wins again he will keep Serbia firmly on the road to EU integration - despite Kosovo.
If Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party wins, the potential for Serbia's public anger, and international isolation grows exponentially.
Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian prime minister, is a nationalist who only appears moderate when set against the radicals.
His Serbian Democratic Party is being squeezed all the time between Tadic's pro-Europe stance, and the blood and thunder rhetoric of Nikolic and his master, Vojislav Seselj, on trial for war crimes in the Hague.
This looks like the year Kostunica will have to choose one camp or the other. The presidential race will be close.
If Nikolic wins, the EU can be expected to turn its back on Serbia again. Investment will dry up. And other parts of the Balkans may benefit from increased international help.
If Tadic wins, the pro-Europe camp wins with him.
In Bosnia, a compromise in November over a police reform which goes some way to re-integrating the country, was a precondition for further steps to EU membership.
Many in the Balkans hope EU entry will lift living standards
The sudden shock of being thrown to the end of a very long queue to join the EU seems to have done Bosnia's quarrelsome politicians some good.
The Bosnian Serb leadership are interested above all in preserving their own fiefdom - the Serb Republic in Bosnia. Theirs is a tale of power and money, coloured with identity.
With the sun from Brussels shining a little brighter in the streets of Banja Luka, as well as Sarajevo, there is no reason why Kosovan independence would encourage them to revive their long-lost dream of joining Serbia. The Nato summit in Bucharest in April will be crucial in terms of the overall stability of the Balkans. Macedonia, Albania and Croatia have all worked hard on securing their invitations to join the alliance.
Despite what its president describes as "a wasted year" in 2007, the promise of Nato membership should soothe troubled brows in Skopje.
None of Serbia's neighbours - Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria included - are in any hurry to recognise an independent Kosovo.
But the future of the Balkans will depend on investment, and wages - not the race to set up diplomatic representation in Pristina.
2008 could be the year the clouds of war finally disappear.