More than eight years after U.S. planes bombed Serb strongman Slobodan Milosevic out of Kosovo, the small Balkan territory is still legally a part of Serbia. But the province--which has been under U.N. administration since clashes between Serbian forces and secessionist rebels sparked an international crisis in 1999--took another step toward independence this month when the U.N. failed to negotiate a settlement between the two sides before a Dec. 10 deadline. Differences between Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian majority and Belgrade, which opposes full independence for the province, proved too great to bridge. So too did the gulf between the West and Serbia's traditional ally Russia over the region's future.
"We have waited long enough," Kosovo's Prime Minister-in-waiting, Hashim Thaci, recently told TIME. With the province poised to unilaterally declare independence, it could be a complicated birth. The U.S., which still has some 1,500 troops in the territory, has indicated it is prepared to recognize the new country. But Serbia and Russia remain fiercely opposed. The European Union, which would be the chief backer of the new state, is divided: some countries worry that recognizing a declaration of independence without the U.N.'s imprimatur will encourage separatists elsewhere. And some Kosovo Serbs, who account for less than one-tenth of the population, are threatening to secede. But open conflict seems unlikely. Belgrade has ruled out a military response and instead is threatening to cut off energy and supplies to the province. Because of the current uncertainty, NATO announced that some 16,000 troops will stay in the region. Back in 1999, it took 77 days for NATO to win the Kosovo war; nearly nine years on, full peace still awaits.