Two events got 2008 off to a running start in the Balkans.
The first was the narrow victory of Serbia's pro-democratic president, Boris Tadic, in early elections against an ultranationalist rival, Tomislav Nikolic.
The second was an independence declaration by the former Serbian province of Kosovo, where 1.8 million ethnic Albanians celebrated the end of their long wait for statehood.
Together, those February events appeared to mark a turning point for the former Yugoslavia -- a break from the ethnically driven politics of the past, and a step toward greater integration with the West.
There were other signs of a growing political maturity, as well.
Slovenia, the EU's only Balkan member, assumed the rotating EU presidency at the start of the year pledging a smooth transition for Kosovo and improved ties between Brussels and Belgrade.
In April, Croatia and Albania received invitations to join the NATO military alliance. (A third country, Macedonia, had its invitation blocked by Greece amid a lingering dispute over its name.)
And Radovan Karadzic -- the former Bosnian Serb leader seen as an architect of the Srebrenica massacre and the siege of Sarajevo during the 1992-95 Bosnian war -- was arrested in Serbia in July, after 13 years in hiding.
The so-called "Butcher of Bosnia" will now be tried at the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. It's a move some hope may bring a sense of closure to one of the grimmest chapters in the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
"His arrest is very important for the victims of the war and genocide in Bosnia," says Senad Pecanin, the editor in chief of "Dani," an independent Sarajevo weekly. "It obviously brings a kind of relief for them and their expectations of justice. It was late -- his arrest was expected much earlier. But it was still a very important moment in the current history of Bosnia."Kosovo Fallout
As 2008 comes to a close, however, any steps toward reconciliation and stability seen in those early months have given way to a more muddled and volatile picture.
The focus of Kosovo's debut as an independent state quickly shifted from the fireworks and jubilation in Pristina to mounting anger in Serbia, where officials refused to acknowledge the loss of a territory they consider the cradle of Serbian civilization.
Just days after the Kosovo declaration, Serb protesters angered by Western support for Pristina's independence mobbed the streets of Belgrade, setting fire to the U.S. Embassy and attacking other diplomatic buildings.
The violence soon dissipated, only to be replaced by a bureaucratic affront, with Serbia blocking for nearly six months the transfer of administrative powers in Kosovo from the existing mission of the United Nations to EULEX, the new team run by the European Union.
Tiny Kosovo ends 2008 with dangerous divisions remaining between the Albanian majority and its Belgrade-backed Serb minority. A defiant cluster of EU states -- Spain, Greece, Cyprus, Slovakia, and Romania -- have yet to recognize the Pristina declaration, complicating efforts by Brussels to address the Kosovo issue with one voice.
Still, Peter Palmer, the Balkans project director for the International Crisis Group, says from Pristina that the transition is going "more smoothly than anyone would have dared to hope."
"This is irreversible. There are those, of course, in Belgrade but also nonrecognizing states -- Russia and five EU members -- who have not accepted it. But no one else has put forward a viable alternative to Kosovo independence," says Palmer. "It's certainly true that things have not gone exactly as the recognizing states and Kosovo itself would have hoped. It's not an ideal situation. But nevertheless, Kosovo independence is a reality."
The Kosovo declaration had far-ranging ramifications, most notably in Georgia, where separatists in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia cited Pristina's example in making their own independence bids with full recognition from Moscow.
Within the Balkans, Kosovo's independence was seen as reigniting old tensions. A number of ex-Yugoslav states stepped forward to recognize Pristina's independence, to Serbia's mounting displeasure. When Macedonia and Montenegro became the 50th and 51st states to recognize Kosovo, Belgrade denounced the move as a betrayal and expelled both countries' ambassadors.In Bosnia, Simmering Unrest
Bosnia-Herzegovina was the one state besides Serbia not to recognize Kosovo. That, however, did not prevent Milorad Dodik, the voluble prime minister of Bosnia's Serb entity of Republika Srpska, from using Kosovo as a precedent he said could clear the way for a theoretical secession from Sarajevo.
That threat is part of a running nationalist feud between Dodik and his Bosniak rival, Haris Silajdzic, the Muslim member of the country's tripartite presidency, who himself has called for the abolition of Republika Srpska.
The fragility of Bosnia's power-sharing agreement, brokered by the international community in the Dayton peace accords in 1995, is serving as a reminder in Kosovo that Western-imposed solutions are not necessarily a fail-safe guarantee against ethnic discord -- particularly in instances where Belgrade is intent on protecting the interests of the region's Serbs.
The rising tensions have also sparked fears of a new regional war in multiethnic Bosnia -- fears that James Lyon, a Balkans expert with the Democratization Policy Council, says the West should move quickly to counteract.
"If we see violations of Dayton, we may be seeing first and foremost violations of what is primarily a cease-fire, with the implications for that," Lyon says. "Both sides are now accusing the other of re-arming. And if the Serbs are accusing the Bosniaks and the Bosniaks are accusing the Serbs of re-arming, then there's probably a good reason to believe that there's a grain of truth to the complaints of both sides."
Lyon says part of the problem lies in the fact that the international community -- and the EU in particular -- has allowed Serbia to pursue with impunity its policy interests in neighboring states, often at the expense of regional stability.
Brussels is eager to bring Serbia -- the biggest and most obstinate of the former Yugoslav states -- into the EU fold. The result, says Lyon, is a kind of "Serbian exceptionalism" in the EU's Balkans policy, whereby Belgrade is offered sweeter incentives and milder penalties than other countries making steadier progress toward EU membership.Managing Belgrade
Brussels this year offered Serbia a Stabilization and Association Agreement, or SAA -- a deal seen as a key step toward EU membership. Although Belgrade was not seen as falling short on some reforms required for an SAA, the offer was seen as placating Serbia for the EU's nearly unanimous backing of Kosovo's independence declaration.
Radovan Karadzic faces the UN court in The Hague on August 29.
Belgrade, in turn, handed over Karadzic, in a move that earned it near-instant praise from Hague and EU officials. But a handful of EU countries, particularly the Netherlands, say no more concessions will be forthcoming until Serbia arrests Ratko Mladic, Karadzic's army commander during the Bosnian war and the top remaining Hague suspect still at large.
Serbia is not considered likely to produce such an arrest, however. Mladic enjoys the continued loyalty and protection of the Serbian Army. His testimony, moreover, could potentially reveal lines of command in operations like the Srebrenica massacre -- something that could ultimately prove deeply damaging to the political and military elite in Belgrade.
There are high-profile issues, like Mladic, that demonstrate Serbia's limitations as a viable EU partner. There are also more mundane ones, like Belgrade's continued failure to bring its laws in line with Schengen visa standards that are highly desired by the Balkan public.
Then there is Tadic, whose Western backers watched with disappointment as his Democratic Party struck a coalition deal with the Socialists, the former party of deceased Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, after parliamentary elections in the spring.
"Tadic's choice of coalition partner indicates very clearly that European integration is not necessarily as strong as he would like the West to believe it is in terms of his government's priorities," says Lyon. "He chose a very, very right-of-center party that is the party of Slobodan Milosevic. It's a party that no one in their wildest dreams here in Serbia today would associate with being pro-European."
Europe, of course, is not the only player in the Balkans. Many in the region hope the United States, preoccupied under the Bush administration by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, may redirect some of its attention to the former Yugoslavia when Barack Obama enters office in January, bringing with him a vice president and cabinet members who are well-versed on Balkan issues.Challenges Ahead
And then there is Moscow, which in 2008 continued to wield considerable influence over the Balkans, serving as a kind of counterbalance to the West. Russia acted as Serbia's booster in UN Security Council debates on Kosovo and continued a regional energy-driven spending spree.
But while Russia's patronage has been largely welcome, some of the deals have sparked controversy in the Serbian government. Moscow's plan to purchase NIS, Serbia's state energy company, has divided lawmakers because the deal fails to guarantee an initial promise by Russia that its strategic South Stream pipeline would run through Serbia. Refusal to proceed, however, would almost certainly mean an abrupt end to Moscow's support on Kosovo and other issues.
The question, however, may become moot if the global financial crisis ultimately sets back the Kremlin's energy-expansion plans.
If 2008 was the year of Kosovo and Karadzic, 2009 may easily prove the year of economic meltdown in a region that still has some of the highest unemployment and poverty figures in Europe.
Adding financial instability to a region already riven by rising ethnic tensions may see the Balkans putting aside a vision of the future and returning to the problems of the past.
RFE/RL looks back at the stories that shaped 2008. More