The status of the UN-administered Kosovo province has remained a major stumbling block between Belgrade and Pristina, as international officials plan to launch talks over its future in 2005.
Kosovo is technically part of Serbia but has been a UN protectorate since NATO intervened to end the 1998-99 war between Serbian forces and separatist guerrillas from the province's ethnic Albanian majority seeking independence, which Belgrade considers unacceptable.
The talks on Kosovo's final status are expected to start next year under UN auspices, but the international community has been insisting that Belgrade and Pristina first have dialogue on practical issues.
The leaders of Kosovo and Serbia held their first face-to-face talks since the war in Vienna in October 2003, agreeing to launch an ongoing dialogue on matters of mutual concern such as energy, communications and the return of refugees.
But the process was badly undermined after violent anti-Serb riots erupted in the province in March, leaving 19 dead and some 900 injured.
"It seems that the two sides have not moved an inch forward, same as it was during the war, but fortunately, there are no arms involved nowadays," a western diplomat warned.
The talks have reached a critical stalemate after the appointment of former guerrilla leader Ramush Haradinaj as Kosovo's prime minister after October 23 parliamentary elections.
Haradinaj, 35, was a senior commander of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) separatist guerrilla movement during the war against Serbian forces, and has recently been questioned by UN war crimes investigators.
Belgrade officials have sternly rejected any talks with Haradinaj, who himself had pledged that he was "aware of the benefit of the dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade on technical matters, but also of the benefit of political contacts."
And Kosovo President Ibrahim Rugova has warned that "any talks with Belgrade are extremely difficult... as they do not accept what has happened after 1999, that Kosovo is de facto a free and independent state."
"Everything would be much easier if there would be a direct recognition of Kosovo's independence by the United States and the European Union," Rugova told Radio Free Europe.
Belgrade and the ethnic Serb minority in Kosovo and the Serbian government however insist that the territory, the historic seat of Serb culture and religion, is an inalienable part of the former Yugoslav republic.
"Any decision to proclaim Kosovo independent would be absolutely illegal and criminal," warned Serbia-Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic.
Belgrade has accused the Kosovo leadership and the international community of failing to provide any security for the Serb minority in the province, allowing violence that has forced more than 200,000 ethnic Serbs to flee since the UN arrived in the province.
Only some 80,000 to 100,000 ethnic Serbs remain in Kosovo, mostly in enclaves protected by NATO peacekeepers.
Under a plan floated by Belgrade earlier this year, Serb enclaves in Kosovo would be allowed to effectively govern themselves rather than remain under the control of mainly ethnic Albanian central institutions.
But chief international official in the province, UN administrator Soren Jessen-Petersen, has warned that "the fuse is very short" in Kosovo.
The year 2005 would be "potentially tense, because as we get closer to the status talks the stakes are getting much, much higher and in what is a fragile society we can expect that there will be provocations," Jessen-Petersen said in a BBC Hardtalk interview earlier this month.
Jessen-Petersen however suggested that there was still a possibility for compromise between Belgrade and Pristina.
Kosovo Albanians "know that if they make sufficient improvement by mid-2005" on implementing a set of basic democratic standards, then status talks will begin."
"They better than anybody else fully understand another outburst of violence means that they can wave goodbye to immediate status talks," he added.
But he warned that neither side "has the right to decide final status."
"The final decision would lie with the United Nations Security Council," insisted Jessen-Petersen.