Dressed in a grey pinstripe suit and burgundy tie, Hashim Thaci smiles and rolls his eyes as the power blinks out again in his office in downtown Pristina, the capital of Kosovo. "Some government," he groans. Following elections on Nov. 17, the former leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army, or KLA, is expected to be sworn in soon as Kosovo's Prime Minister. If he and other Kosovo Albanian leaders declare independence from Serbia by early next year, as is widely expected, Thaci will become the Prime Minister of a newly sovereign state. The former guerrilla leader dismisses fears that Kosovo's proposed "unilateral declaration of independence" could trigger renewed violence in the region. "The time for war is past," he says. There is, he insists, no need for further delay: "For me, Kosovo's independence is a done deal. We've waited long enough."
Not everyone agrees. Most Kosovo Albanians, who make up an estimated 90% of the population, do indeed see independence as long overdue. But Serbia itself and Kosovo's Serb minority remain implacably opposed to the idea. On the eve of the final round of talks this week between Kosovo Albanians and Serbs aimed at negotiating a solution to Kosovo's status (legally, it is now no more than a province of Serbia), Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica vowed that Belgrade would "never let an inch of its territory be taken away." Kosovo Serbs warned of "permanent instability" if Kosovo is granted independence. And Russia, a key ally, continued to back Belgrade to the letter.
Under a mandate from the troika of powers overseeing Kosovo's future the U.S., Russia and the E.U. the deadline for a negotiated settlement on Kosovo is supposed to be Dec. 10. Several E.U. countries, while supportive of independence as a goal, are opposed to its pursuit in the absence of formal U.N. endorsement. Carl Bildt, the Swedish Foreign Minister and former top U.N. envoy to the Balkans, has urged Thaci not to follow through on promises to declare independence if the deadline is not met. "We need a soft landing in Kosovo," Bildt said. Right now, the best he might hope for is a bumpy one.
Kosovo Albanians have been agitating for full independence from Belgrade since before NATO planes drove Serb forces out of the province in 1999. But the U.N. resolution which helped end that conflict left the province part of Serbia. Last year, the U.N. introduced a plan that envisioned "supervised" independence for the territory, with the full blessing of the international community. But Belgrade, backed by Moscow, refused to budge. "Kosovo is our Jerusalem," Bozidar Djelic, Serbia's Deputy Prime Minister, told TIME recently. "That's where our church was born. That's where our kings were crowned."
A threat by Moscow to veto the plan in the U.N. Security Council put paid to any real hope of compromise. When Kosovo Albanians then renewed the threat to declare independence, whatever the objections of Belgrade and Moscow, Western leaders found it difficult to argue for an alternative. "Now that Russia has cast its lot so effusively with Serbia," said one Western official, "I don't see another five, six or 10 months of talks providing any significant benefits." Fed up with the stonewalling, the U.S. and major E.U. countries such as France, Britain and Germany have now signaled their readiness to recognize Kosovo, though a handful of smaller E.U. states like Spain and Cyprus may yet withhold formal recognition, worried that such a concession might encourage separatists on their own turf.
Russia, for its part, continues to insist that by allowing Kosovo to break away without the U.N.'s approval, the West is violating international law. Western officials counter that after experiencing the horrors of former Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, it is pointless to expect that Albanians would ever again agree to live under Belgrade.
The intransigence of Russia and Serbia has emboldened Kosovo's Serbs, who still make up just under 10% of the province's population. Their leaders in northern Kosovo are threatening to secede themselves if Kosovo breaks away. "Albanians don't want to be ruled from Belgrade; we don't want to be ruled from Pristina," Milan Ivanovic, head of the hard-line Serbian National Council in the northern town of Mitrovice, told TIME. "There is an impression," he added ominously, "that Serbia will not make any radical moves if Kosovo declares independence. That is wrong. If they try to kick us out by force, Serbia will try to get back what was taken."
How big is the risk of real trouble? Belgrade is threatening to cut off electricity supplies and close trade corridors, but it has ruled out a military response, and 15,000 NATO peacekeepers remain on the ground in Kosovo to prevent open conflict. But in one scenario, ethnic Serb police stationed in northern Kosovo and supervised by the U.N. would change sides after a declaration of independence, thus compelling the U.N. to impose martial law. Violence could also flare if ethnic Albanians attempt to march on Mitrovice to prevent it from seceding. Any such conflict could easily spill across borders. Meanwhile, Serbs in neighboring Bosnia, where they have their own statelet, Republika Srpska, have threatened to break away if Kosovo secedes.
In Belgrade itself, where politics is poised between moderately pro-Western forces who want Serbia to join the E.U. and nationalists who favor closer ties with Moscow, a decision by the E.U. to back Kosovo's independence could make waves. Aleksander Popovic, deputy head of the ruling Democratic Party of Serbia, told TIME that Serbia may well reconsider its "betrothal" to the E.U. if the E.U. recognizes Kosovo. Djelic, the Deputy Premier, agrees: E.U. support for a unilateral declaration, he said, "would throw the European orientation of Serbia and certainly the speed of reform into question." In one recent poll by New Serbian Political Thought, a nationalist journal, 80% of respondents said that they would seek closer ties with Russia if Kosovo were granted independence before the U.N. had sanctioned it.
To be sure, the consequences of a declaration of independence by Kosovo may not turn out to be dire; after the horrors of the 1990s, neither radical Serbs nor Albanians really want to risk a war. But nor does the region enjoy an instinct for reconciliation. Thousands of ethnic Albanians died at the hands of Serbs in the late 1990s; revenge attacks on local Serbs as recently as March 2004 left 19 dead and nearly 1,000 injured, with dozens of medieval Orthodox churches destroyed.
Back in Pristina, where preparations for independence day are under way, Thaci is putting the finishing touches to a personal makeover from irascible rebel leader to buttoned-down politico. In Kosovo's recent election campaign, he focused not on questions of independence but instead on energy supplies (those power outages), road-building and economic development. "I made mistakes in the past. But I've changed," Thaci says. After all the blood that's been shed there, let's hope that's true of his native land, too.