The future of Kosovo, the Albanian populated southern province of Serbia administered by the United Nations, remains unclear nearly six years after a NATO military campaign forced Serbian troops out of the territory. Western powers and Russia hope to resolve Kosovo's final status later this year.

NATO troops from more than a dozen countries are still an essential peacekeeping presence in Kosovo. In an upsurge of violence last March several people were killed and dozens injured when majority ethnic Albanians rioted, attacking the homes and churches of Kosovo's tiny Serb minority.

Alarmed at the absence of clear policy statements from the major powers, a Brussels-based research group in late January issued a report calling for Kosovo's independence. Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister, is the president of the International Crisis Group. Mr. Evans sees no alternative to independence.

"The truth of the matter is that this train has left the station. Return to Belgrade [Serbia] rule is not going to happen,? said Mr. Evans.  ?The international community is not going to allow it to happen. Circumstances on the ground are going to militate against that happening. The status quo is untenable. The economic situation is pretty catastrophic and can't begin to turn around until you've got all the status and legal identity issues resolved."

While Kosovar Albanians demand independence, Serbia opposes it. Vuk Draskovic is the foreign minister of Serbia and Montenegro.

"According to the charter of the United Nations, that is impossible legally to promote an independent state on the territory of another independent state against the will of that state,? Said Mr. Draskovic.  ?That's clear. The status of Kosovo can't be the same before the tenth of June 1999."

Independence for Kosovo will have to be approved by the United Nations Security Council, of which at least two members oppose independence.

The United Nations is insisting that before final status can be discussed, the elected authority in Kosovo must demonstrate its compliance with European standards of good governance. For Mr. Draskovic those standards have not yet been met.

"It means that all Serbs expelled from Kosovo after June 10 1999 must be in a position to come back,? he added.  ?[It means] the repairing of more than 40,000 Serbian houses, more than 150 centuries old churches and monasteries. [It means] that there is a European level of protection of minorities-Serbs and the other non-Albanians.  [And it means] the European model of the decentralization of power in Kosovo."  

Mr. Evans of the Crisis Group believes the standards can be fulfilled and consensus ultimately reached among all parties.

"We just have to move out of this impasse,? said Mr. Evans.  ?And the way forward is to recognize the reality of the independence train. But to [also] set the conditions for that happening, which will give real protections for the people who need it inside Kosovo. And will give the international community some confidence that we're not creating a whole new batch of trouble. And I think you can do that by a continued international monitoring presence for the indefinite future. You can do by an international presence in the Kosovo judiciary. You can do it by some constraints on an independent Kosovo joining up with Albania or a neighboring territory."

There are some signs of progress. Both Ramush Haradinaj, the new Kosovo prime minister, and Mr. Draskovic speak openly of the need for dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. And yet there is still complete disagreement on the key issue of independence.