Leaders in Kosovo are considering a unilateral split from Serbia, in case the United Nations, US and Europe fail to achieve a diplomatic settlement this year over the breakaway province's political status.
Ibrahim Rugova, Kosovo's president, has told the Financial Times that he is drafting a constitution envisaging the province of 2m people as a newly independent state in the Balkans.
"We are drafting our own constitution, as is our right, and in due time it will be presented to the parliament, which will either vote on it or send it for a referendum," Mr Rugova said, describing the document as "a constitution for a democratic state drawing on Kosovo's historical traditions, Jefferson, the unifying principle of independence and other European constitutions".
By announcing such plans Mr Rugova can only succeed in widening the political gulf between Belgrade and Pristina, the provincial capital. Both sides' positions already are hardening as they jockey for position before high level talks, possibly this year, to determine Kosovo's future.
Kosovo's current status is defined by UN resolution 1244, signed after a 1999 war, allowing for the presence of Nato troops and providing a legal foundation for Unmik, Kosovo's UN-led administration. The resolution states that Kosovo remains part of Yugoslavia, the federation replaced in 2003 by the union of Serbia and Montenegro.
Serb leaders in Belgrade say Kosovo must remain a Serbian province with "maximal autonomy", but most of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians, who constitute more than 90 per cent of the population, want full independence.
Mr Rugova argues that Yugoslavia's dissolution two years ago should trigger de facto independence for Kosovo. But his effort to reinforce this claim by drafting a constitution could exacerbate diplomatic headaches for the UN, US and Europe.
Refusal by leaders in Belgrade and Pristina to strike a compromise already poses difficulties. UN officials acknowledge that disputes in the province are festering rather than healing.
After wide scale ethnic Albanian violence against Serb communities last year, Kofi Annan, the UN secretary-general, urged a new approach and an exit from Kosovo as soon as possible. But while Russia and China oppose Kosovo independence, the UN Security Council cannot agree on a successful exit strategy.
Mr Rugova said opposition from Moscow and Beijing might soften. "If the US and European Union recognise Kosovo's independence, the Security Council will, too, perhaps with Russia and China abstaining," he said.
Bajram Kosumi, Kosovo's prime minister, told the Financial Times he backed Mr Rugova's moves. "I do not know if the constitution will be dealt with this year or early next year, but I know that by June 2006 Kosovo will not be what it is today," he said.
Both men said they would reject any plan for a gradual transition to independence. "The transitional phase, if it goes longer, is a danger to the transition of the entire region," Mr Kosumi warned.
The prime minister also directly accused Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's prime minister, and other Serbian leaders of lying about Kosovo's future