Can Kosovo really be independent? Lost in the headlines of the ongoing insurgency in Iraq and the continued instability in Afghanistan, the Balkans have become a forgotten battleground. Despite the surface calm, the ethnic divisions remain deeply entrenched, and the violent dissolution of the former Yugoslavia still serves to re-ignite long-simmering factional hatreds.
In Croatia, the situation was defined by the almost total forced expulsion of ethnic Serbs, while in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia the imposed peace agreements have been enforced by the large-scale presence of international troops patrolling between the encampments of the erstwhile combatants.
Although responsibility for the Bosnian peacekeeping mission has been transferred from NATO to the European Union and the military commitment to Kosovo has been slightly reduced, these standing forces still demand a substantial contribution of military resources.
With the Iraq occupation chewing up the equivalent of a battalion a month (an average of 71 killed and 560 wounded every 10 days) and U.S. recruiting efforts falling 40 per cent below attrition rates, the Pentagon is naturally keen to reduce overseas commitments wherever possible.
With that objective in mind George W. Bush's administration has begun to push for a final solution to the Kosovo situation by the end of this year. It is the intention of the U.S. State Department to recognize Kosovo as an independent country within its existing boundaries and to sever all formal ties this province has to Serbia and Montenegro.
While this sounds rather simple - and would result in several badly needed U.S. military units being freed up for deployment to Iraq - in reality it will do little to bring long-term stability to the region.
The Albanian majority population, which would be charged with governing this newly created country, has never relinquished with each territory its claim on containing neighbouring Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro, large Albanian populations.
Without redrawing the map, the new Kosovo government will also be left with the issue of the remaining Serbian minority living in protected enclaves.
In March 2004, Albanian Kosovars sent a clear message to these Serbian villages when they launched a three-day, provincewide pogrom, killing 28, burning more than 800 houses and destroying numerous centuries-old monasteries. This wave of violence took place despite the presence of some 25,000 NATO soldiers and UN police.
Most of those Serbs still living in Kosovo believe that last year's pogrom was a forewarning of what they can expect from the Albanians should NATO withdraw after a declaration of independence.
While it was claimed in 1999 that NATO's intervention was to prevent human rights abuses perpetrated against ethnic Albanians, in the six years of occupation the international community has been unable to protect the rights of the Serbian minority.
Beyond the philosophical questions, historical patterns of ethnic demographics and the rhetoric of nationalists on both sides, the practical independence of Kosovo remains an impossibility.
Landlocked in the central Balkans, the mountainous region of Kosovo consists largely of two river valleys. The entire population is just over two million, with 500,000 residents living in Pristina, the capital. Even in the economic heyday of the former Yugoslavia, Kosovo was always considered a poor cousin.
Administratively, this autonomous province was attached to the Republic of Serbia, but all Yugoslavs paid an annual Kosovo tax to offset the annual economic shortfalls. It was partly resentment over this financial burden that led to the secession of the more prosperous republics of Slovenia and Croatia from the Yugoslav federation.
Since the international community took over the administration of Kosovo in 1999, it has pumped billions of dollars worth of relief funds into the impoverished province.
"Unfortunately, they have created an entirely false short-term economy," says Caslov Ocic, a professor of economics at Belgrade University who chaired a special task force on Kosovo in the early 1990s. "That region cannot ever be economically independent, as they simply don't have the resources, the workforce or the necessary transportation arteries."
According to Ocic, Kosovo's main assets are an abundant deposit of low-grade coal and some excellent vineyards.
"However, the coal is too high in pollutants for European standards, and you cannot export enough wine to feed two million inhabitants," he said. "If there was any possible way to make Kosovo economically viable (the Yugoslav government) would have explored it."
So while the U.S. government may continue to press for immediate statehood in Kosovo, the reality of independence will remain a long-term and possibly unachievable goal. The question is: Who will pay the Kosovo tax in the interim?