BELGRADE, Dec 30 (AFP) -
The loose union of Serbia and Montenegro faces a tough year ahead with mounting pressure to arrest top war crimes fugitives, talks on Kosovo's future status, and even its possible dissolution.
The Balkan federation, which replaced Yugoslavia in 2003 in a bid to shake off the legacy of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's regime, has a difficult task to fulfil its aspirations to join the Euro-Atlantic bloc.
Calls for the arrest of top war crimes fugitives, former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic and his political leader Radovan Karadzic, who are believed to be within reach of Serbian security forces, have conditioned talks on Belgrade's closer ties with the European Union and NATO.
Brussels warned recently the next round of EU integration talks in February would only be held if Serbia-Montenegro's cooperation with the UN war crimes tribunal is "fully realised" -- a diplomatic way of insisting on the arrest of the six remaining Serb fugitives.
Belgrade has since responded with a string of announcements in an effort to show it is doing its utmost to locate and hand over Mladic, the highest profile fugitive believed to be hiding in Serbia, by targeting his supporters.
"There is no doubt that the solution of Mladic's case is a precondition to solve all the problems" Serbia is facing, said President Boris Tadic.
Serbia-Montenegro Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said no other state in the world "faces such challenges" in the coming year.
Apart from the war crimes burden, the sensitive issue of the status of Kosovo is to be tackled in talks between Belgrade and the territory's Albanian leaders.
Kosovo, legally still a part of Serbia, has been administered by the United Nations since a NATO bombing campaign ousted Belgrade-controlled forces in 1999 to end a Serbian crackdown against separatist Albanian rebels.
Negotiation teams representing Belgrade and Pristina are to begin direct talks on Kosovo in January, with the key issue being whether to grant it the independence demanded by Albanians but strongly opposed by Belgrade.
"These talks will probably be the most difficult even for veteran diplomats as both Belgrade and Pristina are firmly stuck in their completely opposite positions," said a source close to the mediators.
Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova, like all ethnic Albanian leaders, has insisted that "independence remains our main objective in the next year."
"The independence of Kosovo is not negotiable," said Rugova, who is battling the advanced stages of lung cancer and whose death would further complicate the situation.
Belgrade says it is only prepared to offer "more than autonomy, less than independence" in the talks, giving Albanians their own institutions but preserving Serbia's territorial integrity.
Kosovo could have "some kind of international representatives, but no seat in the United Nations, no defence sector and no ministry of foreign affairs," with an "international presence" needed at borders, Tadic told AFP in a recent interview.
The other major problem facing Serbia is a plan by Montenegro's government to hold a referendum on independence in the first few months of 2006.
Brussels fears that such a divorce could undermine both Belgrade's and Podgorica's EU entry bids, and officials also worry that another independence push, just as the Kosovo talks enter a delicate phase, could stir up regional tensions.
Undaunted, "my message to all of our friends in the international community is that they should be prepared for a new political reality in the Balkans in May next year and that will be the existence of a new state -- independent Montenegro," said the republic's Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic.
Montenegro is about a tenth the size of Serbia and has a population of about 650,000, but its people share the same language and religion as Serbians.