On Dec. 10, three international mediators -- U.S. envoy Frank Wisner, Russian representative Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko and European Union envoy Wolfgang Ischinger -- will submit their report on Kosovo's status to Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary general, after two years of negotiations aimed at settling the status of Serbia's southern province ended in failure.
And without a small miracle in the next few days, a mutually acceptable solution looks as far away as ever.
Kosovar Albanians, who form 90 percent of the population, want a fully independent Kosovo. Serbia, which was given this southern province in 1913 by the five big European powers at the time (Britain, Austria, Germany, France and Russia), does not want to relinquish Kosovo, which it regards as the cradle of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
This question became of international interest again after the 1999 NATO bombing campaign that drove Serbian security forces out of the province.
Belgrade is proposing a system of maximum autonomy for Kosovo, agreeing to everything (including membership in the IMF) except for Kosovo becoming an independent state with its own membership in the U.N.
The next steps seem quite clear: Within the next three months, Kosovo is to declare independence, which will be immediately recognized by the United States, most of the EU, Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.
Hashim Thaci, guerilla fighter-turned politician, whose party won Kosovo's Nov. 17 elections, and who is to become the next prime minister, has said that Kosovo will declare independence immediately after Dec. 10. In private, however, he has been telling diplomats that he is willing to hold on until spring.
The reverberations of Kosovar independence not sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council could be felt far beyond the Balkans. In the Caucasus, for instance, Abkhazia could follow the example to proclaim its independence from Georgia. Nobody, even in the West, wants Kosovo to become an international law reference.
Many territories in the world encompass a national minority; if some of these are moved to demand independence, the U.N. could face scores of new complicated and dangerous requests.
The West is putting pressure on the Kosovar Albanians to delay declaring independence until well into the New Year. Some think reason for this is that the West wants to create favorable conditions for the re-election of pro-Western democrat Boris Tadic as president of Serbia. The only other serious candidate for the presidency is Tomislav Nikolic, the acting leader of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, whose founder, Vojislav Seselj, is on trial in the U.N. war crimes tribunal in Holland.
If Nikolic was to win the presidential elections, the West fears there will be a serious danger of "losing Serbia," but if Tadic wins a second term in his office, then there is a chance for Serbia, after a period of anger over losing Kosovo, to stay on the path to Euro-Atlantic integration. And, if Tadic can win, then he should be in a position to finally assert some serious influence in government, which he has not done in the last year.
The current prime minister in Serbia, Vojislav Kostunica, is a democrat and a moderate nationalist. But on the issue of Kosovo, he is unyielding.
Later in 2008, the current U.N. administration will be replaced by the EU mission, to implement Martti Ahtisaari's "supervised independence" plan.
However, a big piece of this puzzle is missing: What will this mean for the stability of the region, where war is never a remote possibility? Today, Albanian nationalism is also very strong in western Macedonia (where Albanians are in a majority), in southern Montenegro and in northwestern Greece.
There is another reason to be cautious about granting independence to Kosovo: It could lead to renewed ethnic cleansing of the more than 130,000 Serbs who remained in the province after NATO troops allowed more than 200,000 Serbs to be expelled from Kosovo by the Albanians eight years ago. The "reverse-cleanse" included virtually all the 40,000 Serbs who once lived in Pristina.
Belgrade controls Mitrovica, Zvecani and Lipanj, three municipalities in northern Kosovo populated by the Serbs, over which Pristina has no authority at all. This area will almost certainly demand partition. Albanian minorities in Macedonia and Serbia could call for a change of borders and Bosnian Serbs will in turn seek independence from Sarajevo.
Much also depends on Serbia, which has vowed that it will never accept the loss of the province and has the means to disrupt the stability of the region.
Milos Radenkovic, a medical student in Belgrade, agrees with the government: "To lose Kosovo is like losing Serbia itself. It is a collective punishment. We have already paid a high price for the crimes of Slobodan Milosevic, including NATO bombing and crippling sanctions. To chastise Serbia again is profoundly unjust."
Although the Serbian government has not yet revealed its plans for what they call "unfavorable outcome," officials have made subtle threats against Pristina and any country that would dare to recognize Kosovo's independence. Relations with the United States and the EU will deteriorate sharply. Serbia may withdraw ambassadors from capitals that recognize Kosovo.
Serbia's Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and his associates will not send troops to Kosovo, but might indulge in some saber-rattling by moving military units closer to the boundary with Kosovo and reinforcing the police units currently there.
Officials have hinted that they intend to do everything to make life difficult and unbearable for Kosovar Albanians.
Seventy percent of Kosovo's fast moving consumer goods and construction materials come from Serbia as well as most of the electricity supply.
"Imposing a trade embargo is insane and could only cripple Serb economy as Serbia exports goods worth between 150-200 million euro a year to Kosovo, but informally it reaches 400 million euro," Mijat Lakicevic, an editor in chief of Ekonomist magazine, the most credible business weekly in Serbia, told ABC News.
"Where and when will Serbia be able to find such market?" asked Lakicevic. "If the economic embargo happens, it will find Kosovo prepared for it. By doing this, the Serbian products will once and for all disappear from Kosovo," said Agim Shahini, head of the Kosovo Business Alliance.
Serbia could also refuse to recognize Kosovar passports, preventing Kosovars from passing through Serbia on their way to Western Europe.
It could cut off electricity supplies and block power supply routes. Kosovo buys 40 percent of its power from Serbia. But it would not make such a move lightly, because of its impact on tens of thousands Kosovo's Serb minority, who live south of the ethnic divide
Furthermore, Kostunica can stir trouble in Bosnia by encouraging the Bosnian Serbs to further challenge the High Representative, possibly even with a referendum initiative. He can also cut off Serbia 's ties to the West and EU and turn to Russia for partnership. Moscow has always said it would veto a resolution of the U.N. Security Council imposing a solution not agreed to by Serbia.
As these events unfold, the potential for violence and pressure for additional measures will be very high. Berlin has announced it will be sending an extra 500 German troops to Kosovo, bringing their contingent in the NATO-led force to 2,800. In Brussels, Gen. John Craddock, NATO's supreme commander in Europe, said the alliance's 16,000 strong Kosovo peacekeeping force had plans to tackle any violence.
"I think Serbia should think carefully about the moves it will pull, not to harm itself the most, as EU integration should be our top priority. The closer we get to EU, the more new investors we'll have," Lakicevic said.
Bozidar Djelic, deputy prime minister, and a close ally to Boris Tadic said to ABC News: "Of course we will not use force. But you must understand. EU integration will be much harder for us to sell to the Serbian people, if Kosovo gets independence."
In the end, Serbia's options for retaliation on Kosovo will remain limited. Belgrade will almost certainly not recognize independent Kosovo officially, but it will have to find some way to live with it. As for the anti-Western measures, they will probably result in nothing more than the recalling of ambassadors and lots of angry words from Belgrade. After several months, things would likely go back to normal.
Unless, of course, something unpredictable happens, which is never a remote possibility in the Balkans.