As negotiations on the future status of Kosovo look set to begin, there is no room for complacency.
By Tim Judah in London
Martti Ahtisaari, the man charged with leading talks on the future of Kosovo, has just completed his first tour of the region. Thus far his statements have been factual and neutral in tone. The former Finnish president has discussed the mechanics of the talks he is about to begin and has declined to say either how long they will last or what he thinks the outcome should be.
So far, so good. And of course all concerned hope that when the talks start in earnest they will somehow produce a result acceptable to all.
In reality everyone knows that this will not be possible, for while Kosovo Albanians demand full independence, Serbia is sticking to its position that the province, now under UN jurisdiction, can have "more than autonomy but less than independence".
Western diplomats engaged with the issue hope the result of the talks will be some form of "conditional independence". That means breaking the sovereign link between Serbia and Kosovo and Kosovo becoming independent, albeit with qualifications. These could include restrictions on its sovereignty for years to come and a powerful role for a figure appointed by the international community, drawing in part on the model used in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
As the talks look set to open, however, there is little optimism in diplomatic circles that they will proceed smoothly towards such conditional independence. Indeed, diplomats are seriously considering their options in case the negotiations run into the sand and what is being termed the "disaster scenario" unfolds.
Following Mr Ahtisaari's trip to the region, the most likely next step is the beginning of some form of proximity talks and consultations. In other words, there are to be no face-to-face talks in the immediate future. In theory, this would be good time to deal with those issues that the Serbian authorities and the Kosovo Albanian negotiators could conceivably agree on. These might include certain questions related to the economy.
But it remains to be seen how much common ground can be found on anything without an agreement on the "label" that will be attached to the future Kosovo - i.e. will it be independent or part of Serbia?
If that is the case, then, according to one senior diplomatic source who deals with Kosovo, "it is quite possible that by February or March Ahtisaari will be stuck and then he will have to act. He will have to do so to prevent riots. He won't want to be held accountable for them, so he will have to compile a solution with experts and go to the big capitals and say: 'This is it, go to the United Nations Security Council and sell it.'"
Even if some form of conditional independence is imposed via the Security Council, which Russia and China would have to be induced into agreeing to, that still does not mean it will work, the same source warned. Without some measure of "under-the-table" agreement, it might be impossible to "impose implementation".
There could be huge disagreement, for example, over the question of decentralisation. If this were to give Serbian areas a very large degree of autonomy then, faced by major Albanian resistance, the "disaster scenario" could become a reality.
Other variations on the disaster theme include the Serbian government resigning after finding it is unable to prevent conditional independence, opening the way for the election of a government dominated by the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party.
The disaster could begin much earlier if peaceful demonstrations against the negotiations turn violent. Albin Kurti, leader of the Self Determination movement, which is campaigning against any talks on independence, said in London last week that while he was committed to non-violence, others in Kosovo were not.
Mr Kurti is against the talks because by their very nature they aim at compromise and he says that there can be none on the question of independence. He fears that any talks that begin with conditional independence could soon be whittled down to autonomy within Serbia.
If Mr Kurti were able to organise large demonstrations, diplomats fear that "by imposing the dynamics, the elite might follow". Possible outcomes include the Kosovo authorities creating a ministry of defence and declaring the Kosovo Protection Corps - currently, in theory, an unarmed civil defence force - the army.
The main focus for major potential violence in the case of a talks disaster are the Serb enclaves in central and southern Kosovo. These are believed to be home to some 60,000 out of 100,000 Serbs remaining in Kosovo.
Both Serbian and Albanian hardliners would have an interest in ethnically cleansing them. Some extreme nationalist Albanian groups just want all the Serbs out of Kosovo and might see attacks on the enclaves as a beginning. On the other hand, some Serbian groups, seeing partition as the only realistic scenario for Kosovo, might also encourage, or force, Serbs to flee, just as the Bosnian Serb authorities forced the Serbs out of the suburbs of Sarajevo, after they were handed over to the Bosniak side as a result of the Dayton peace agreement in 1995.
The logic of this is simple. A resulting increase in the concentration of Serbs in the already overwhelmingly Serbian-dominated northern part of Kosovo would create a neater ethnic partition than the one that now exists. The hope of anyone behind such moves - inside or outside official Serbian structures - would be that it might pave the way for this region of Kosovo to declare independence from Kosovo and eventually be internationally recognised as a part of Serbia.
"Let us not make this the world's most difficult issue," Mr Ahtisaari urged in Pristina on November 23.
There may indeed be more complex issues in the world but on this one the count-down has started and Mr Ahtisaari is racing against time.
Tim Judah is a leading Balkan commentator and the author of "The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia" and "Kosovo: War and Revenge", both published by Yale University Press.