With the end of the latest, and likely last, round of UN-brokered negotiations, the breakaway republic enters a new phase that is likely to usher in Kosovo sovereignty. Long before the deadline, Kosovo's ethnic-Albanian majority vowed to strike out on its own. Its Serbian minority responded by promising to erect obstacles to Kosovar independence, with the help of ethnic kin in Belgrade.
Hard-liners on both sides have upped the ante, suggesting they might resort to violence to defend their positions. Serbia has threatened to impose economic sanctions on the province, which it maintains is an integral part of its territory. On a global scale, the longstanding standoff has proved divisive within the UN Security Council.
Range Of Emotions
An informal RFE/RL survey of public sentiment ran from sanguine to resentful to fearful, but most appeared resigned to the idea that independence for Kosovo is part of their future.
"It is all too unclear and dark to me," Lidija Trifunovic, an ethnic Serb in the northern Kosovo city of Mitrovica, says of her expectations after the formal conclusion of talks. "To be very frank, I'm afraid -- not for myself, but for our children. If we lived through all what we did -- we had to. I just hope our children don't have to."
Mitrovica, about 40 kilometers from Kosovo's capital, Pristina, was historically an ethnically mixed city. But the city was divided into two parts after NATO's intervention in 1999 to quell bloody fighting between Serbs and ethnic Albanians: the north, where Trifunovic and fellow Serbs reside, and the south, inhabited by ethnic Albanians.
Peace in the UN-administered province is maintained by NATO's KFOR troops, but there are concerns that a Kosovo declaration of independence might prompt Serbian residents of Mitrovica to announce their secession and unite with Serbia, whose border lies to the north. The Serbian National Council, which represents the Serbian hard line in Kosovo, has already requested that Belgrade mobilize if the breakaway republic opts for statehood. The Albanian National Liberation Army, meanwhile, has pledged to defend the interests of an independent Kosovo.
The tough talk has fueled fears of a new outbreak of fighting, although more moderate voices in both camps are playing down that possibility. "I have had a number of meetings with representatives of KFOR and with NATO's secretary-general, and all of them gave me strong guarantees that KFOR knows what to do," says Oliver Ivanovic, an ethnic-Serbian politician living in northern Mitrovica. "They have very clear instructions for all field units and on this issue they have warned Albanian leaders. NATO will react immediately if anyone tries to use violence for achieving a political goal." This, he says, "is why Serbs don't have to be concerned. They can carry on living normally as nothing will happen -- at least until the end of this year."
Milan Ivanovic, the leader of the Serbian National Council in Mitrovica, has adopted a harder stance. Noting that the Serbian-populated regions of Kosovo make up 9 percent of the entire territory of Serbia, he says that "even if we wanted to, we can't forget those Serbs or abandon them. In every area where Serbs live in the north, which is more connected to Serbia, or in the so-called enclaves within Kosovo, independent Kosovo cannot be implemented."
He goes on to declare that "we don't care about the decisions of the Albanians," adding that "we did not take part in the elections of the Albanians and they can't take over our municipalities -- and I guess this is clear to everyone."
'We Must Wait, But Not Very Long'
A common concern on the minds of Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo centers on their economic future, particularly following Belgrade's warning of an economic blockade to stymie Kosovo's ambition of sovereignty.
But many in Pristina feel that things can't get much worse economically, and are bullish on what they can achieve running their own show. "I think there is a bit of false perception that Kosovo's economy depends [on the] Serbian side," says Ilir Dugolli, an analyst at the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development. "Kosovo...is a poor country, but what Kosovars unanimously want is to be able to decide their own fate -- to be able to decide and self-govern, to decide for themselves. So the fact is that even now -- as poor as we are as Kosovo -- Kosovo's budget is 100 percent from internal revenues."
A decision by Serbia to mount a blockade would "harm only itself," because main imports like electricity could easily be provided from Macedonia and other states. Dugolli concludes that "the influx of goods benefits Serbia more than Kosovo."
Xhavit Spahiu, an ethnic-Albanian retiree from Pristina, cautiously says that after years of poverty, the future looks bright. "We have experts [in many fields], but we need more," Spahiu says. "Maybe we must wait for a while. For example, Germany had to wait 100 years to become what it is now. We must wait and not act too quickly, but we cannot wait very long."
But Zeljko Tvrdisic, a Serb from northern Mitrovica, is convinced that no great changes are in store in the immediate future. "December 10 will be the same as December 9 or the 11," he says. "As for the plans of my family and myself, I will leave Kosovo when I feel it's not safe to live here anymore and if I don't see an economic prospect for my survival."
(with contributions from RFE/RL correspondent Valentinas Mite and RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service)