To Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, independence means control of lucrative coal mines and multimillion-dollar investment funds. It also means freedom from what they see as repressive Serbian governments.
For many Serbs, independence for Kosovo is the ultimate indignity, the amputation of 15% of their country's territory, a land of historical and cultural significance.
As officials from Pristina and Belgrade on Monday failed to find a compromise solution for the province populated by about 2 million ethnic Albanians and 100,000 Serbs, the search for a final resolution moved to a divided, reluctant United Nations and European Union.
Kosovo's ethnic Albanian government on Monday reiterated its intention to declare independence sometime next year, after coordinating with Washington and several European countries that are sure to approve.
"Kosovo and the people of Kosovo urgently need clarity on their future," a government spokesman, Skender Hyseni, said Monday in Pristina, the provincial capital.
However the next steps play out, officials, experts and ordinary people on both sides warn of violent repercussions that could destabilize a volatile part of the world. Another all-out war here seems unlikely, but even minor incidents have a tendency to snowball in the Balkans.
"An incident, a provocation, and the security situation could unravel very quickly," said a senior official with the U.N. mission that has governed Kosovo since U.S.-led NATO forces forcibly expelled Serbian troops who were waging a brutal crackdown on Albanian separatists in 1999.
Today, 16,000 NATO troops patrol Kosovo, primarily to protect the minority Serbs who still live in enclaves scattered throughout the province. Germany sent a 550-member rapid deployment force and Britain has offered another battalion in anticipation of possible bloodshed.
The worst spasm of postwar violence occurred in 2004, when riots by Albanians left 28 people dead, most of them Serbs. Albanian gangs drove thousands of Serbs from their homes and burned Serbian Orthodox churches.
In Pristina, a large segment of the ethnic Albanian population, as well as the government itself, is in a kind of limbo, waiting for independence.
Among them are people such as Kushtrim Mahmutaj, 26, who as a teen took up a gun with the guerrilla army that fought Serbian forces nearly a decade ago. Mahmutaj has been biding his time, putting off marriage and education, until his new state has a military, which he hopes to join. "We have been very patient until now," Mahmutaj said. "But we fought and died just to establish a country. We could lose control in a second."
Although the Kosovo Liberation Army, as the guerrillas were known, formally disbanded, many of its fighters remain connected to their commanders and could be mobilized quickly. Several thousand were incorporated into a quasi-police force.
Shadowy groups have sprung up recently, threatening subversive attacks. Masked men calling themselves the Albanian National Army appeared before television cameras to issue dark threats against Serbs on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians. And a group called Czar Lazar's Guard (named for a medieval Serbian hero) has staged several rallies and claimed it will do battle for the Serbs.
It is difficult to say how seriously any of these groups should be taken, but the potential for extremist violence is real.
Frustration has spread throughout the impoverished villages and battered, nouveau-riche cities of Kosovo's Albanians. In elections last month to choose the next parliament and prime minister, the turnout was startlingly low, a reflection of apathy and disgust with politicians who have failed to deliver independence and to build a functioning government.
"Our people have realized their leaders are not leaders; the people don't believe anymore," said Teuta Sahatqija, deputy head of a major political party, Ora, and a leading businesswoman who opened Kosovo's first Motorola dealership after the war.
Her fear, she said, is that if Kosovo's status is not soon resolved, the void will be filled by more radical leaders for whom violence is an immediate option.
Kosovo's officials have used the pending independence as a pretext to postpone development, analysts in Pristina say. Kosovo's government remains riddled with corruption, and there is scant progress in efforts to rein in criminal gangs notorious for trafficking women, weapons and drugs.
Officials in Belgrade, backed steadfastly by Russia, argue that secession by Kosovo violates international law. A U.N. resolution at the end of the 1999 war recognized Serbia's current borders; Belgrade interprets the resolution as international endorsement of Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo.
If Serbia allowed Kosovo to secede, it would set a dangerous precedent and encourage separatist movements elsewhere.
"You begin to cut territory, and you don't know where you would stop," said Slobodan Samardzic, the Serbian minister for Kosovo.
Serbian officials say they are contemplating a range of retaliatory actions if Kosovo secedes, from cutting electricity and blocking the transport of food there, to freezing diplomatic ties with nations that recognize Kosovo's independence.
The Kosovo matter has created a particular dilemma for Serbia's democratic reformers, starting with President Boris Tadic, who have struggled to rehabilitate the pariah-state image that Serbia earned under the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic.
Samardzic warned that losing Kosovo would upset Serbia's slow, fragile process of opening up to civil liberties, safe dissent and free speech.
"The West ignores the depth of this delicate balance," he said.
Indeed, the political mood is turning sour and radical.
"If you give less to the democratic government than you gave Milosevic, then why should we support the democrats? Milosevic preserved Kosovo; the democrats lost it," said Predrag Markovic, a moderate Serbian nationalist and historian with the Institute for Contemporary History in Belgrade.
That view is repeated frequently in Serbia, reflecting a sense of betrayal and suspicion that the West is determined to whittle away what was once the heart of Yugoslavia.
Markovic doubts Serbs would go to war over Kosovo, but believes they would punish their leaders and all those who advocate independence for the province.
"The consequence will be the slow poisoning of our political culture," he said.
The signs are already there. Members of Tadic's moderate coalition are sharpening their nationalist rhetoric. The pro-Western radio broadcaster B92, a champion of the movement to oust Milosevic, is being attacked in parliament and on the streets. Crusading journalists are receiving threats.
Mladen Obradovic, 27, is the face of a fast-growing ultranationalist group, the Obraz Patriotic Organization, which sees Kosovo as a defining issue. There is "no place" in Serbia for those who advocate Kosovo's secession, he says, and it is only a matter of time before Serbia will reconquer Kosovo and other lost lands.
Then, Obradovic said, Albanians who refuse to be citizens of Serbia should be "dealt with the way the United States deals with Mexicans who cross the Rio Grande."
"If [the Albanians] attack with weapons, we will respond with weapons," Obradovic said. In contrast to the paramilitary militias that operated during the Milosevic years, Obraz is not loyal to or controlled by the government. Some analysts suggest that might make the organization more dangerous because it is less easily reined in.
Among those who advocate independence for Kosovo, many suggest it be a "supervised" status as a way to ensure the safety of minority Serbs and prevent a spiral of violence.
Such an arrangement, the International Crisis Group said in a new report, would have to involve the indefinite presence of European Union or U.N. monitors.
But, the International Crisis Group said, "Accepting paralysis is not a viable option.
"The longer statusuncertainty lasts, the more agitated the region around Kosovo will become, and the more a sense of [a] developing security crisis will grow."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times