In Kosovo now there is only one question. What will the Russians do? It is asked in smoky cafes, on the countless building sites, and in government offices. It is asked by the majority Albanians, hoping for independence for this divided former Serbian province, who fear the Russians will torpedo the dream for which they fought the Kosovo War of 1998 to 1999.
And it is asked by the minority Serbs, who ruled Kosovo for so long and regard it as their cultural and spiritual heartland, trapped in their ever-shrinking enclaves in the south and in their last stronghold in the north around the city of Mitrovica. Their fear is that their Slav ally, which opposes the independence plan drawn up by UN mediator Martti Ahtisaari, might at the last moment abandon them through the pragmatism of international diplomacy.
It is an issue troubling the functionaries of the international community who oversee Kosovo and who are anxious to see an endgame in sight eight years after the war in Kosovo was ended by NATO's bombing of Serbia and Belgrade.
What makes Russian thinking so important is that the Ahtisaari plan has now been tabled by the US before the UN Security Council. A point of no return has been reached. And, crucially, a Russia that is resurgent in its sense of its international importance and hostile to both the US and the EU over issues as diverse as criticism of its democracy and a planned missile shield for eastern Europe, has not only rejected the resolution calling for UN endorsement of the Ahtisaari plan, but has warned it might exercise its veto if there is a vote.
Instead, Russia is now circulating its own counter-proposal for Kosovo that would keep it within the "general sovereignty" claimed by Belgrade and put off the question of Kosovo's final status, risking, some say, renewed violence.
A crisis eight years in the making is unfolding with a giddy inevitability. For while the fighting in Kosovo stopped in 1999, the conflict itself, as diplomats here acknowledged, has never really ended. All that has been held in check has been forced to the surface again.
For Kosovo's Albanians, fired up by the repeated promises of their political leaders, there is the prospect that independence may be only weeks away. It is a prospect that has forced Serbs to confront the fact that it may now likely require some act of partition on their part, a gesture that risks retaliation and expulsion of the most vulnerable Serb pockets. Suddenly all is to play for.
"During these past years we have made Kosovo. It is done," insisted Kosovoan Prime Minister Agim Ceku, former chief of staff of the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army. "We have built functioning institutions. We have built our vision for the future. The worst case scenario now is a lack of clarity, an ambiguity."
"If you ask me what I think the risks of partition are at the moment," said Naim Rashiti of the International Crisis Group, which issued a report last week warning of the risk of violence if the Ahtisaari plan was abandoned," I would say 50-50. And I am worried that, if there is partition, it has the potential to be very dirty, precisely because no one has any plan B."
In an entity whose economy has survived for almost a decade on international handouts, remittances from family members working abroad, and a grey and black economy -- the latter based in large part on smuggling -- independence has become a kind of spell that for its Kosovo Albanian believers promises to transform a landscape of chronic underemployment and pitiful wages.
It is a fact that is underlined during a visit to the memorial to the Kosovo Liberation Army leader Adem Jashari -- his bullet and rocket-wrecked compound in the village of Prekaz, where he perished with most of his family in the incident in the winter of 1998 that triggered the descent to all-out war.
The preserved ruins are being visited by Nurlje Sadiku from the ethnically divided city of Mitrovica.
"I have never worked," Nurlje said. "But we hope everything will be better when independence comes. Then jobs will be easier. The World Bank will help out with donations and everything will be good."
It is an expectation that has been stoked in the years since the war by Kosovo's Albanian politicians, many of them former fighters.
"There is no alternative to independence," said Hashim Taqi, the president of the biggest Albanian opposition party, the PDK.
"Any attempt to delay the process is high risk. The people are ready and want a decision. They are counting the days. We were ready yesterday. Today is too late. Tomorrow," he said, "is dangerous."
Crossing the bridge into the Serb stronghold of northern Mitrovica that borders Serbia is like entering another country.
The cars that do have license plates have Serbian ones. The mobile phones are on the Serbian network. The signs are written in Cyrillic. Even the beer is different -- Kneva, not the ubiquitous Peya brand drunk to the south. It reflects a society in equally dire economic straits, but one sustained not by Kosovo's provisional institutions but by Belgrade.
And by a different dream.
For if Kosovo's Albanian population is fixed on independence, the Serbs here, and in the scattered enclaves in central and southern Kosovo, are equally determined that they wish to remain a part of Serbia.
"The Serbs in the north around Mitrovica are not afraid," said Petra Miletic, a journalist turned politician. "But the Serbs in the enclaves are afraid. I am afraid for them and, yes, I do know of Serbs in the south who are selling up and leaving, as Albanians in their enclaves in the north are also selling up."
But even if population exchanges are continuing, he has no illusions about the conditions for partition, if only in Kosovo's north.
"For us to survive independently would require the support of Belgrade," he said.
It is one of Kosovo's two as yet unanswered questions: whether the Albanian population denied independence by a Russian veto would declare independence on its own, and whether, faced with any kind of independence for the Albanian majority, the Serb minority would secede.
What it is driven by -- as Miletic and many others on both sides concede -- is the utter failure of any reconciliation since the year's end.
Such failure was perceptible at the prom night for the graduating high-school class of 2007 in Pristina -- a city that once had a Serb population of 40,000. As they turned out in their posh frocks and dinner jackets, it was clear that, whereas their Albanian parents could once speak Serbian, the new generation speaks it not at all. Albanians and Serbs can no longer communicate.
In his deputy director's office in the hospital in Mitrovica, the reality is laid out by Milan Ivanovic of the hardline Serbian National Council.
"I don't know if partition is possible," he said, although on his wall hangs a large map showing his movement's claim to 38 percent of Kosovo's land for the Serbs.
"What is true is that in the north we have a better possibility than in the Serb enclaves in the south and center. We have our own system and no contact with the Albanian institutions. And we have freedom of movement over the border into Serbia," he said.
"We believe that we are between two extremities -- between Ahtisaari's plan and between that of [former Yugoslavian president Slobodan] Milosevic's plan for Kosovo. There must be room for further negotiation," he said.
What he means is room for further stalling.
It is what the Russians are calling for, but time is running out. For as much as Serbs are calling for more time, Albanians are desperate for results. And those who lost most in the war are most anxious for a final resolution.
In the village of Krushe e vogel, in the Kosovo Liberation Army heartland to the south and the scene of one of the worst massacres of the war, in which more than 100 residents remain "missing," the alternative is brutally outlined by Xhylferije Shehu, 48.
In her tomato frame among the fields, Shehu, who lost her husband among nine family members, said: "We have waited eight years for independence. I'm not optimistic that there won't be trouble. If there is no independence, then we will have to fight again."
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