The Balkans were again at the center of European politics in 2015. The countries of southern Europe are playing a key role in dealing with the refugee crisis.
Not long ago, Brussels and the major European capitals felt the way to deal with the Balkans was to "freeze" them until the EU had time, political scientist Ivan Krastev says. But now things are quite different.
The Greek financial crisis, Russia's aggressive policies, the tensions surrounding Moscow's energy supplies through the Balkans, the waves of migrants from the Middle East arriving via the so-called "Balkan route," the hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from the Western Balkans and the migrants from Bulgaria and Romania escaping poverty - all of these have once again placed this peripheral region at the center of European politics.
One in 10 Europeans (if Turkey is not included) lives on the Balkan peninsula. The region is highly heterogeneous, but by European standards it has many features in common: poverty, economic and social backwardness, the lack of rule of law, political instability.
These already serious problems further worsened in 2015. The EU urgently needs new solutions, new strategies and new instruments for the Balkans, says Johanna Deimel of the Southeast Europe Association, who describes the region as "a core component of Europe."
Migration is just the start
These analysts agree that the "Balkan problem child" needs more attention - for the sake of the whole of Europe. In particular, the migration flows to western Europe from the region, or that pass through it, make a new policy imperative.
"You have to talk to these countries. No longer just talk about them, but with them," said Dusan Reljic, a Balkans specialist with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Reljic pointed out that a significant proportion of the migrants who came to Germany in the first half of the year came from the countries of the Western Balkans. Germany is the EU country that receives most of the economic migrants from Romania and Bulgaria, with more than 200,000 arriving in the past two years. Among them are many Roma, but also simply poor people fleeing the lack of prospects in their countries.
"The entire region, regardless of whether EU members or aspirants, is marked by a comparatively low standard of living. Young people in particular have no jobs. The income and wealth gap between north and south in the EU is increasing. Protests in Bosnia in 2014, in Macedonia in the spring of 2015 and currently in Montenegro are calling for a new political culture - an economic, democratic and constitutional perspective," Deimel said. And, she added, the countries from the region and the EU must work equally hard to create this perspective, because there will otherwise be no relief from the pressure of migration.
In the second half of the year, the Balkan countries caused more headlines when it comes to migration. Hundreds of thousands of migrants from the Middle East made their way to the West through Greece, Macedonia and Serbia, as well as Bulgaria, Croatia and Slovenia.
For Macedonia and Serbia in particular, it was not an easy task to allow these people a smooth and orderly passage, but there were no major incidents or violence. The refugees were not welcome guests in the Balkans, and they were simply waved through in the direction of Austria and Germany.
Reljic says non-EU members Serbia and Macedonia behaved more humanely and in a more civilized manner towards the refugees than some EU countries: "Curiously, the EU members from the region tended to revive the negative sentiments towards the Balkans, while the non-EU members made a positive contribution."
To some extent, governments along the Balkan route recognized the problem too late and were unprepared for the influx. Traffickers earned good money from the plight of migrants until the migrants began to be dealt with in a reasonably organized manner.
The EU quota system also caused resentment in the region. The governments in Sofia, Bucharest and Zagreb are supposed to share part of the burden, but their peoples' attitude towards the refugees has been anything but positive.
Particularly visible were the populist and xenophobic sentiments in Bulgaria - a country that most refugees thus avoided. There was a new, refugee-related division in Europe, and the Balkans tended to find themselves in a group with Hungary, Poland and the Baltic countries, rather than with the countries of western and northern Europe.
The massive movements of migrants through and from the Balkans have forcefully shifted the issue of EU external borders into focus. "The EU has tried to avoid this topic for 10 or 15 years. Today, the problem must be resolved if the EU wants to get the waves of refugees under control," Krastev said.
Not only the EU, but NATO also needs to protect its borders in the Balkans. In 2015, NATO members Romania and Bulgaria repeatedly warned that the Ukraine conflict had put them in a potentially very dangerous situation. Both countries joined the sanctions against Russia, while Bucharest and Moscow also have tensions over Moldova.
The geopolitical and energy-policy aspirations of the Kremlin in the region must be taken very seriously, Deimel said. "On the one hand we have a country like Serbia, which is in a strategic partnership with Russia, and on the other Montenegro, which has just received an invitation to join NATO."
"Ultimately, the refugee and migration movements have a security aspect inasmuch as religious radicalization in the Muslim societies of the region poses a potential risk for the affected countries and for the whole of Europe," she said.
"In all these questions, the Balkans play an important role for the whole of Europe. And now, even more so."