The status of Kosovo has hung fire for nearly eight years since NATO's bombing campaign. Now, as a key Dec. 10 deadline approaches over this highly sensitive, landlocked patch of the Balkans – the 90 percent-majority Albanian population is on tenterhooks. The election of former guerrilla leader Hacim Thaci as new prime minister last month underscores a sentiment stated with rising fervor and anxiety: Kosovars deserve independence, they won't live under Serb rule, and they can't wait any longer for a clear path to a settled status.
Dec. 10 ends some 100 days of negotiations between Serbs and Kosovars that stalemated. Here in Kosovo, it is difficult to find anyone who doesn't link independence to nearly every economic, political, and psychological problem facing the former Serbian-ruled province.
From Mr. Thaci to the white-collar elites to the workmen now paving the downtown Mother Teresa Avenue with $2 million in granite from China – the focus is on ending the uncertainty that hangs in the air like the acrid smell of winter coal.
"We are not equal with the other people in the Balkans, in Europe, or in the world. We don't feel like Serbia should any longer being making decisions for our future," says Ardian Gjini, a cabinet minister. "We are all tired, and when leaders get tired, the situation is problematic. The pressure has been incredible for 20 years. There is no space left to compromise."
In the 1980s and 1990s, Kosovars endured Serb police-state rule until Albanian militias and then NATO troops drove the Serbs out. Now, after eight years of UN rule backed by 17,000 NATO troops, politicians and many observers say that justice too long delayed is justice denied.
Last week, Serb officials stated in Vienna that they would not "give up an inch" of Kosovo.
Mr. Gjini states that further diplomacy means "nothing but net loss for us … Albanians are ready to accept the Ahtisaari plan, right now."
That plan, devised by Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari last year, was presumed to be the final word on Kosovo's status – itself presumably the final act in settling the wrenching Balkan wars of the 1990s. Kosovars agreed to it, not without some bitterness. (It would institute "supervised independence" under the European Union, and offers minority rights for Serbs that Albanians say their minorities do not have in Serbia proper.)
But last summer, as the US and EU faced unexpected Russian and Serbian opposition, Kosovars agreed to a further 100 days of talks – a concession made easier after President Bush went to Albania in June and publicly promised independence for Kosovo. "Ordinary Albanians have an almost childlike trust in the US, especially after President Bush went to Tirana in June," says journalist Bekim Greicevci.
Yet always in the background here are warnings that yet another disappointment could bring a renewal of militia activity or riots.
"We've been in legal limbo, not knowing who owns what property, what is our citizenship, what enterprises are worth starting; unable to attract investors, let alone the World Bank or IMF," says Ilir Dugolli, with the Kosovo Institute for Policy Research and Development. "If things don't clarify, the situation ... might get out of hand."
Unlike other parts of former Yugoslavia, such as multiethnic Bosnia, the main ethnic groups in Kosovo rarely mixed. "Albanian officials told me recently that even if Mother Teresa [an Albanian] were the president of Serbia, we don't want to be part of it," says Louis Sell, a former US diplomat specializing in Russia and the Balkans.
For Serbians, Kosovo is a spiritual homeland, central to their national myths and heroic stories – a kind of Jerusalem. In the past year, Belgrade has stoked Kosovo mythology. Serbs haven't been able to visit Kosovo since the 1999 NATO bombing, but buttressed by support in Moscow, the Serbs have in the past year passed a constitution describing Kosovo as an "integral" part of Serbia. Moscow opposes any Kosovo independence not ratified by the Security Council; the EU is reluctant to back independence without unanimity among its members.
As a result, Kosovo's status has become increasingly sensitive for the US and EU leaders like France, Great Britain, and Germany. It has become a give and take over the definition of borders in a region pockmarked by ethnic enclaves, a struggle over emerging great power geopolitics and spheres of influence. For many Albanians, it is a simple test of patience.
"The international community thinks of Kosovo as a Serb and regional instability issue," says Christopher Hall, president of American University in Kosovo, a private college in Pristina. "The real crisis is the unemployment and stagnation that comes as a result of the uncertainty over final status. I worry that this could eventually breed a backlash."
Quintin Hoare, former director of the Bosnian Institute in London, says the inability of the global community to draw a line for Kosovo is counterproductive. "The more delay, the more extreme problems and positions develop in Kosovo," he argues. "It's an old pattern."
The story line in Pristina is that Kosovo will declare independence, probably sometime in January, in consultation with the US and leading EU members. Russia will block this in the Security Council. But UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon will enable the act and have EU police replace UN troops.
Pristina, a city of mud and new construction, swirls with speculation. Last month, journalist Berat Buzhala wrote that he was invited through a US back channel to meet a US official. The unnamed official floated the idea of freezing the independence process until 2020, during which time EU and the US would invest some $7 billion a year in Kosovo. The plan included the guarantee that a referendum would take place in 2020, meaning that Kosovars would essentially be signing onto an independence plan.
In an interview, Mr. Buzhala gave a number of specific, concrete details of the meeting. Many officials here pooh-pooh the entire story.
Buzhala says the deal is the only good prospect. "The situation here is escalating," he says. "I'm worried what will happen if we don't get independence, because people are starting to think irrationally…. We can create an army in four hours."
This week, the city is discussing a plan by the EU to delay independence for weeks or months while implementing the Ahtisaari plan. That would buy time to convince Russia that Europeans were committed to protecting Serbs. A story in the International Herald Tribune stated that EU members were "cautiously optimistic" that new Kosovo Prime Minister Thaci would go along with the plan.