By Allan Little
Kosovo could be independent from Serbia early next year, following the collapse of talks over its future, and despite opposition from Belgrade and Moscow.
It is all being carefully co-ordinated with Kosovo's pro-independence allies - the United States, Britain, France, and Germany.
They will recognise the new state quickly, open diplomatic relations, exchange ambassadors. Serbia will refuse to recognise it and will be supported by Russia, which is hostile to breakaway regions within its own borders.
Kosovo is where it all began, 20 years ago. Yugoslavia's bloody disintegration, the descent into barbarism, the coining of a grim new euphemism to add to the lexicon of conflict: "ethnic cleansing".
This is where Slobodan Milosevic established himself as the champion of the Serbian nation.
He stood in front of a crowd of a million Serbs at a rally to mark the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo in 1389 - the battle in which the Serbs were defeated by the Turks - and rallied the nation to what he said was a new fight for national survival.
The legend of 1389 has given Kosovo a mythical, almost mystical significance in Serbian nationalism.
It is also - appropriately - the place from which Milosevic launched what was to be a series of wars - in Slovenia, in Croatia, in Bosnia, and finally Kosovo itself.
The arc of Milosevic's life reads like a character written by Goethe. There was something Faustian in the pact he made with the twin demons of Balkan nationalism and war.
They kept him in power for a while. War was his power base. But they destroyed him in the end.
And now the Serbs - and Serbia itself - are paying the price of that disastrous experiment in ethnic supremacy.
I remember them at their hubristic high water mark. The territories held by the Serbs swept across the western Balkans, observing no legal frontiers.
All of Serbia, including Kosovo, all of Montenegro, two thirds of independent Bosnia, one third of Croatia they held.
I was there the day they unfurled the maps of the state they proclaimed as Greater Serbia: bearded men in World War Two uniforms of the Serbian royalist Chetnik forces, self-consciously atavistic, fighting and killing and dying to avenge an injustice that had begun in the 14th Century.
All the Serb lands west of the Drina River were to be renamed Western Serbia.
Serbia would now stretch to the gleaming Adriatic at the Croatian port of Zadar.
And the non-Serbs whose homes are on those territories, who have been driven out, ethnically cleansed, we asked. What was to become of them?
Frankly, they did not give a damn.
There was an old nationalist song they used to sing.
"Who dares say it, who dares tell the lie, that Serbia is small?" they sang.
"It is not small, it is not small".
Well it is small now. First the Serbs lost their territories in Croatia. Then the Serbs in Bosnia - under immense military and diplomatic pressure - agreed to be part of an independent Bosnian state.
Even Montenegro abandoned them. And finally, now, the cradle of Serbian national identity, Kosovo.
There was a time when a declaration of independence would have plunged this region back into full scale war.
Will it this time? Few here think so.
And here's why. Wars in the Balkans do not happen spontaneously. They have to be planned, organised, funded, resourced, armed, equipped, guided.
Milosevic threw the weight of the entire state behind the effort of the 1990s. It was a huge mobilisation.
There is no state in the Balkans ready or able to make that sacrifice now.
Serbia is in no condition to launch an invasion to retake Kosovo by force.
Even if it were, it is doubtful that Serbian public opinion would, this time, walk hand in hand with the project.
Serbia will be angry and resentful - but most Serbs now want to get on with the business of becoming a normal European country.
Britain and America have become the most important sponsors of independence, because they think that without it there can be no economic progress, and without economic progress, Kosovo will continue its dangerous slide into criminality.
It is already a haven for drug smuggling and people trafficking - a headache that is felt across the European Union and beyond.
One pro-independence Western diplomat here likened the situation to Northern Ireland.
"Your Paddy Ashdown," he said, referring to the former International High Representative in Bosnia. "Your Paddy Ashdown put it well when he said that there were some nations who forfeited the moral authority to govern - the moral claim to sovereignty - simply by dint of their own actions. That was true of the British in Ireland 80 years ago. It's true of Serbia's historic claim to Kosovo now," he said.
But there could be consequences, the most important of these in Bosnia.
Bosnia remains territorially divided under the terms of a peace treaty that ended the war there 12 years ago.
Fifty per cent of Bosnian territory is controlled by Bosnian Serbs.
They might well now unfurl those old maps again, follow Kosovo's example and declare themselves not part of Bosnia at all but - as they once aspired to become - western Serbia.
And that, rather than Kosovo itself, could be the start of a dangerous, and perhaps violent, unravelling.From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 8 December, 2007 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.