SIX years after Nato’s tanks rolled into Pristina to halt the ethnic killings in the last Balkans conflict, Kosovo is finally preparing for the Holy Grail of full independence.
Kosovo has been in political limbo under UN protection since June 1999, but its government estimates that it could be on track for initial talks on autonomy this summer.
In a best-case scenario, say international officials, this could lead to some form of self-determination for the war-torn former Yugoslav province by the end of next year.
But the road to full sovereignty will not be smooth. Before the so-called "final status" of Kosovo can be discussed, the UN-administered province must fulfil a series of internationally decreed standards in such areas as democratic government, the economy and rule of law.
The most pressing issue to be resolved will be guarantees that the province will not slide back into violence between ethnic Albanians and Serbs.
Once Kosovo’s international overseers from the UN deem these standards to have been attained, talks on final status could begin this summer.
Avni Arifi is one of the key officials in Kosovo’s new government working towards the goal. Sitting in a smoky coffee bar in the centre of Kosovo’s regional capital Avni, the sharp-suited ethnic Albanian leans forward conspiratorially: "By June this year we’re convinced that we’ll have 90% of the priority standards completed," he says.
"By fulfilling standards we’re convincing the international community that we’re a functioning multi-ethnic government. We’re doing as much as possible to remove Kosovo from Western TV screens as a place of suffering."
The "priority standards" that Avni and his government colleagues are working on include such contentious areas as the economy, rule of law and functioning democratic institutions.
One of the more tricky ones is that of freedom of movement for the province’s benighted and embittered ethnic minorities, such as the roughly 100,000 Serbs who stayed after 1999.
Kosovo has been administered as a UN protectorate since June 1999, when a 78-day Nato bombing campaign brought an end to the ethnocidal rampages of former Serb president Slobodan Milosevic’s soldiers and policemen.
Up to 11,000 people, mainly ethnic Albanians, were killed and some 3,000 are still registered as missing.
Since 1999, hundreds of Serbs and other ethnic minorities have been killed or attacked in a campaign of reverse ethnic cleansing carried out by extremist Albanians.
A succession of UN proconsuls and tens of thousands of Nato troops have administered and controlled the tiny chaotic aspirant statelet, a third of the size of Wales, stuck in between Albania, Serbia and Macedonia.
UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which mandated the entry of Nato and the UN after the Serbs were forced out in June 1999, decrees that the province still remains part of Serbia and Montenegro.
Kosovo has thus been in political limbo since 1999, and the standards issue is the one which will break the deadlock and should lead to its hoped-for independence.
It has motivated Albanians like Avni Arifi who are at the vanguard of Kosovo’s striving for self-determination.
Last week a new prime minister, Bajram Kosumi, was appointed. He replaced Ramush Haradinaj, a colourful and charismatic ethnic Albanian politician who had been a rebel commander in the guerrilla Kosovo Liberation Army in the fight against the Serbs in 1998-1999.
Haradinaj was considered a war hero by many Albanians, but his alleged behaviour during the war against a variety of Serbs, Albanians and gypsies led to him being indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, based in The Hague.
Haradinaj gave himself up to the Tribunal earlier this month, and much to the relief of Nato and the UN, an expected violent reaction to his departure did not materialise.
"There are grounds for optimism as we move forward," said Soren Jessen-Petersen, Kosovo’s no-nonsense and popular UN proconsul, last week.
Addressing the North Atlantic Council, Nato’s governing body, in Brussels, Jessen-Petersen stressed the fragility of the situation in Kosovo as it teeters its way towards self-determination.
"A series of security incidents highlights the essential volatility of the situation in Kosovo, and the readiness to resort to violence by those still blocking progress."
This resorting to violence was illustrated in typically direct form on the streets of Pristina early on the morning of March 15, when a roadside bomb exploded next to a motorcade carrying Kosovo’s president, Ibrahim Rugova.
The president was not hurt, but the incident illustrated the ease with which those intent on destabilising Kosovo could do so.
However optimistic officials like Avni Arifi are, other obstacles stand in the way of Kosovo’s bid for statehood.
The UN’s Jessen-Petersen says that "standards implementation is proceeding by and large without delay", but many problems remain to be dealt with. He cites "economic stagnation and rampant unemployment" as threats to political stability.
Although Jessen-Petersen is popular with the Kosovo Albanian population, the UN Mission in Kosovo, also known as UNMIK, is not. It is blamed for the province’s unresolved political situation and is seen as corrupt. In reality, however, UNMIK is no more or less effective, slothful or overly bureaucratic than any other UN mission over the last 10 years.
HOPES for the future of Kosovo now rest with a former student activist who was installed as prime minister last week.
Bajram Kosumi, pictured left, was sworn in as head of Kosovo’s interim government, hoping to realise a lifetime dream by leading the province to independence.
The mainly ethnic Albanian parliament of the United Nations-administered province approved Kosumi and his new cabinet by 71 votes to 36.
Kosumi succeeds Ramush Haradinaj, 36, the former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) commander who resigned earlier this month to answer charges of war crimes at the Hague tribunal.
The government is the first since the war of 1998-99 to have no ex-guerrillas as members. Kosumi was once sentenced to 15 years in prison for organising ethnic Albanian protests over Serb rule in 1981.
Considered a moderate among Kosovo politicians, Kosumi has, in his own words, "invested my past 26 years in the creation of the state of Kosovo". He pledged recently: "We are going to achieve independence sooner than anyone else could."