Despite its simmering conflict, Kosovo escaped the headlines until the sudden eruption of violence in late March. That confirmed that the majority Albanians and the minority Serbs remain at dagger heads in a region whose status is unresolved. It also pointed up the inability of the international peacekeeping forces to keep the peace. In this Focus, VOA?s Lilica Kitanovska takes a look at the embattled province whose future is decidedly uncertain.

A recent report of the International Crisis Group says it all: ?On 17 March 2004, the unstable foundations of four and a half years of gradual progress in Kosovo buckled and gave way. Within hours the province was immersed in anti-Serb and anti-U.N. rioting and had regressed to levels of violence not seen since 1999.?

Albanian mobs went on a rampage of arson, looting and shooting that left 19 dead, nearly 900 wounded and destroyed over 700 homes, 30 Serbian churches and displaced 4500 Kosovo Serbs. It was the worst outbreak of violence since the end of the war in 1999. The ICG report says it can be seen as a ?rapidly mutating, highly infectious disease -- a sudden runaway, self-reinforcing moral collapse and hysteria.?

The rioting confirmed the worst fears for the region -- ethnic polarity is alive and thriving. Compromise is not in prospect. Louis Sell, executive director of the American University in Kosovo, notes that hundreds of U.N. vehicles were targeted by the rioters. So the enemy was not just the Serbian minority in Kosovo. ?I mean it is there, obviously, but that demonstration was about the international presence more than anything else,? he says.

These events suggested the international presence -- U.N. and NATO forces -- cannot really cope. They are fractured and respond to varying interests. There is no consensus on how to handle Kosovo.

Obrad Kesic, senior partner at TSM Global Consultants, says the U.N. Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) has lost credibility: ?Didn?t have a lot to begin with, but what we have now is agreement across the board that the Albanians, the Serbs, the major international players, including the United States, have lost confidence in the ability of UNMIK to control the situation and administer the situation on the ground. So there is a desperate look for an alternative.?

But what?s the alternative? Michael Boshart, who deals with Kosovo at the U.S. State Department, says there isn?t one. Stick to the policy adopted five years ago, he urges. Before a final status of the province can be established, Kosovo must fulfill the requirements of democracy: rule of law, inter-ethnic peace, a market economy. ?There will be a comprehensive review amid 2005 of the progress on these standards,? he says, ?and if progress has been sufficient, then we can move to a process to determine what the final and future political status of Kosovo will be.?

That is much too slow for Kosovo Albanians who seek independence. The ICG report says Albanians, suppressed for much of the 20th century, have grown impatient and are not much given to self-examination. Some are bent on expelling minorities, come what may. In turn, Serbia appears more combative and talks of re-entering Kosovo to protect its nationals there. In that case, says the ICG, Serbian forces might be hard to stop.

With this in mind, James Dobbins of the RAND Corporation, wants to move much faster. He draws lessons from his experience in several nation-building projects in the last few decades. ?You have two communities in Kosovo,? he says, ?both of whom want to be the majority, and as long as both possibilities are open, there is no incentive to reconcile. You can only reconcile to a given situation. I think that the quicker one had a clear-cut determination that Kosovo would ultimately become independent, the quicker the ethnic groups in Kosovo could focus on living together under the new arrangements.?

But not too fast, warns Mr. Kesic. In the wake of the March violence, diplomats are pressing the Kosovo Albanians into talks with the Serbian Government. But that may be premature. There is also concern about Americans opting out of Kosovo.

?What I am afraid of is that there is going to be an attempt for a quick fix,? Mr. Kesic says. ?Not only to set a date of withdrawal for U.S. troops which would be a big mistake and a blow to the stability of the region. If what I am hearing in the Pentagon and the State Department is true, it would happen within the next 12 months. What it does is create a situation in which negotiations could not succeed, that every little success in the negotiations would be proclaimed a major success so that we can walk away and get to other issues that matter to us.?

Those more pressing issues are currently Iraq and Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are stretched close to the limit. The 1800 soldiers in Kosovo are not involved in outright war and thus could be moved.

Of equal concern is the Kosovo economy, which the ICG says has been neglected by the international community. Economic policy-making, says the ICG, remains fragmented, visionless and hobbled by failures. Money and energy go into trade and services rather than industry and agriculture. Investors have lost confidence in the pace of privatization. The uncertainty of Kosovo?s final status has stunted investment at all levels.

There is a crucial element in improving the economy, says Balkan analyst David Kanin. That is speeding up work on the east-west, north-south corridors through the Balkans that were provided in the Dayton Accords. These roads, railways and pipelines are essential for freer, faster trade that will benefit the entire region.

?Of all the international projects in the region the most important are the corridors,? Mr. Kanin says. ?I am afraid more than ever that they may be put on the back burner. In fact, they are more important to the region than all the political parties, constitution writing and all the criminal courts and everything else. The corridors have in them the potential for the first time to get rid of the major problems in the region. They may begin to move away from organized crime and corruption. That is an essential issue.?

Meanwhile pressure increases to find some kind of solution to the Kosovo dilemma. On a recent visit to Brussels, Kosovo Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi warned that if the international community does not come to a decision on Kosovo?s final status by 2005, the province will hold its own referendum.

This shows a darkening mood, says Janusz Bugajski, director of East European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The level of frustration among Kosovo?s moderate leadership could lead to less stability and more violence. Mr. Bugajski gives the international community two choices: ?Either to impose a firmer U.N. protectorate with a bigger bureaucracy, more powers to the High Representative, greater control if you like by the United Nations over Kosovo?s institutions, which really nobody wants including the U.N.; or secondly, to move to resolve the status question, and I think it is only the latter that will bring the ultimate solution.?

The ICG report concludes that ?a real political, social, economic and institutional development process must be put in place rapidly to absorb the energies of Kosovo?s population. The present policy of ?standards before status? is only half a policy. The regional consequences of continued drift leading to a destabilized Kosovo are incalculable.?