The Kosovo Albanian spotted the New Republic logo on my cap and broke into a broad smile. "Hey, we are now from a new republic, too," he announced triumphantly. Everywhere I went in Kosovo this month, the name of my home magazine made me popular. I gradually gave away all the paraphernalia I owned with the logo on it: first the cap, then the polo shirt, then the sweat shirt. Even my business cards were a hit among ethnic Albanians who believe that theirs is the only new republic that matters.

The U.S. government and, indeed, the entire international community begs to differ, of course: An independent republic of Kosovo is not being contemplated as a possible outcome of the U.N./NATO operation. But amid the general chaos here as local factions vie for power, this lack of agreement over the final status of the province does not seem to matter, at least not for now.

It doesn't matter to Kosovo Albanians, who act as though this were indeed their new republic; their representatives are taking power in municipalities abandoned by the Serb-dominated administration, which has withdrawn with the Yugoslav army. It doesn't matter to the Kosovo Serbs, who curse Slobodan Milosevic and are fleeing in the thousands, fearing revenge from Kosovo Albanians. And it doesn't matter to the international community, which has established its own protectorate over Kosovo, raised the blue U.N. flag--atop the building it took over from the departing Yugoslav army--and is here to stay for at least a year and probably more.

The U.N. Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo--already known by the unwieldly acronym UNMIK--happens to be the third supreme authority claiming to run the province, next to the two competing ethnic Albanian "governments" of Ibrahim Rugova and Hashim Thaqi. But in Kosovo, ruined by war, slowly recovering from the ethnic Albanian exodus and sabotaged by Serbs, power belongs to those who restore power--and water, and peace and garbage collection, too--and this is going to be done by the U.N. mission.

Happy to leave the utilities' restitution to the foreigners, the two local "governments"--both unrecognized internationally--compete for power despite their powerlessness. For them, power and the ability to rule have been more virtual than real since 1989, when Kosovo was stripped of its limited autonomy and run from Belgrade. They will remain virtual as the international mission defines its wide mandate as a de facto protectorate, supported by the U.N.'s military force in Kosovo (KFOR), which has zero tolerance for Mickey Mouse commandants establishing local fiefdoms.

Apart from the fact that they both speak Albanian, Rugova and Thaqi have nothing in common. Rugova is old and stale and has the airs of a European. Thaqi is young and untamed and a country boy. They may face each other in elections, possibly not until the end of next year, the outcome of which it is too early to predict.

Unity is not the ethnic Albanians' forte, and the two men will not reach accommodation easily. Rugova's "government" is a remnant of the decade-old Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), whose main characteristic was nonviolence and main result was nonaction. In 1989, Eastern Europe's annus mirabilis, the year when everything was possible, the Sorbonne-educated Rugova, wrapped in his trademark scarf, assumed the LDK leadership. A dissident writer preaching nonviolence, he could reasonably expect international support. Three years later he was elected "president" of Kosovo (as the only candidate, in unrecognized and unmonitored elections) and started an increasingly authoritarian reign over a parallel state with an education and medical system independent from the Serbian authorities, but not much more.

In March 1998, when Rugova was once again the only candidate, the elections were boycotted by most ethnic Albanian opposition groups, fed up with this Gandhi-cum-apparatchik. By that time, Rugova's credibility among the Pristina literati was seriously undermined by his dictatorial style, the invisibility of his government in exile and the LDK's passive pacifism. But the West, enamored of a nonviolent partner, continued favoring Rugova, thus artificially prolonging his popularity. "Since [Richard] Holbrooke meets with him, he must be all right," a bar owner in Malishevo, in central Kosovo, told me apologetically when I asked about Rugova's portrait hanging there last autumn. Ten years of cult of personality will not end overnight.

In October 1997, Kosovo Albanian students impatient with learning in a "parallel university"--which operated in the mosques, basements and private apartments of Pristina--protested peacefully in the streets. The Serbs reacted with relative moderation--water cannons, truncheons, no shots, few arrests. The students lost their paralyzing fear. But instead of seizing the momentum, Rugova opposed the peaceful demonstrations. This miscalculation further discredited him and the nonviolent movement as a whole. Meanwhile, as half a million Kalashnikovs became available with the collapse of Albania in 1997, there was no stopping an armed resistance. This was the moment when the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) turned from a myth and a state of mind into a palpable group of ethnic Albanians ready to die for their new republic. Warlords to some, freedom fighters to others, they were the only saviors on the block.

No wonder, then, that at the Rambouillet peace talks this past February, a year after the first major clashes between the KLA and the Yugoslav army, Rugova, 55, was totally sidelined and had to grudgingly accept that Thaqi, 29, a KLA commandant and its political leader, was heading the ethnic Albanian delegation. Thaqi has the classic rsum of his generation. After four years studying history at the "parallel university," he went to Western Europe like many of his contemporaries, and then returned to fight with the KLA. He has not yet been tested politically; his popularity (mostly with young people) rests on his association with the KLA. Throughout the months of NATO airstrikes, he was variously fighting in the field, or trying to recruit a government in exile in Albania. Then he started traveling around the West to promote the cause of Kosovo.

Meanwhile, Rugova met with Milosevic in Belgrade, a widely publicized meeting that spelled the end of the Kosovar's credibility among his own people. "He lost his face, only the scarf remains," a friend and philosophy graduate from Pristina told me. Soon, "the president" reemerged in Rome and started touring Western capitals. At the time, ethnic Albanians being deported to Macedonia told me sneeringly, "There is no five star hotel that Rugova would not stay in to lobby for the independence of Kosovo."

One of the provisions of the Rambouillet agreement (signed by the Kosovo Albanian delegation but not by the Serbs) was the creation of a provisional authority. So, in the beginning of April, Thaqi announced the composition of his government, although the one appointed by Rugova back in 1992 had never dissolved. Thaqi became prime minister and named five ministers from the KLA. Five other ministerial posts were assigned to the Democratic Union Movement (LBD), an opposition party.

Three of the five civilian LBD ministers are former political prisoners, with 10 years behind bars each. They are known and respected by the Kosovo Albanians but have very little experience in anything even remotely connected with the exercise of power, since "politics" over the last decade mostly meant dreaming around a cafe table, or theoretical plotting in semi-clandestine party offices. To make matters worse, there was no time for a careful selection, so the personal skills of these three officials do not match their offices: Minister of Justice Hydajet Hyseni is a writer not a lawyer, and neither Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Hajrizi nor Minister of Information Bajram Kosumi speaks any foreign language.

The post of a second deputy prime minister was reserved for the LDK, the party that Rugova heads. But the prospects of Rugova or his supporters joining the Thaqi government are meager. Since Rambouillet, the KLA and LDK leaders have met only once, when they were invited to dinner with Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, but they said very little to each other; and, after all, she has no training as an Albanian-to-Albanian translator.

The Thaqi "government" may have the upper hand in the power struggle for now, but its status is still shaky. This month it established its headquarters in a spacious villa in a suburb of Pristina (reachable only via a dirt track), courtesy of a rich ethnic Albanian entrepreneur, sharing these premises with the high command of the KLA Llap district. But apart from the sumptuous building, the provisional authority is as provisional as they come: There are no telephones of any kind, no vehicles and the leadership's sleeping quarters are at the workplace. Until the June 21 declaration signed by Thaqi in the name of the KLA and received by British Lt. Gen. Mike Jackson, commander of NATO troops in Kosovo--a document that provided the timetable for demilitarization of the KLA--the headquarters of Thaqi's provisional government had KLA soldiers in full uniform standing guard, Kalashnikovs and all. The KLA's meager show of force is frankly pathetic, in comparison with the deployment of the KFOR troops. In the center of Pristina, every few minutes a KFOR tank drives by, and the British sentinels making their rounds made me think of Belfast.

Interestingly, the two strongest political brains in Kosovo both refuse to be involved in politics. Blerim Shala, 36, and Veton Surroi, 38, are both journalists. The former is editor of the excellent weekly Zeri (Voice), the latter is publisher of the most popular daily, Koha Ditore (Daily Time). Both were part of the ethnic Albanian delegation to Rambouillet and then returned to Pristina.

When the airstrikes started, Blerim and his family were deported to Macedonia; Veton managed to hide with his 64-year-old mother, but his sister, Flaka, was forced out. Paradoxically, both men's reputations grew over that period. Blerim turned out to be an invaluable spokesman for his nation, traveling abroad and giving a human face to the masses that were on the run. Veton managed to stay put and gained a different sort of respect--that which comes from sticking it out throughout the bombing. Neither of them has any long prison sojourn on the rsum, but in spite of this they are respected locally. Both men are consulted daily by foreign diplomats and journalists, but each wants to stay away from the exercise of power; Veton shows some signs of waiting for the political waters to calm down before possibly diving in.

The other day, waiting for the friendly Brits from Halo Trust, a demining group, to check Veton's flat for booby traps, he and I chatted about the future of Kosovo. Veton had this advice for the international community here: "Don't hesitate. Be colonial." A strong and lasting protectorate will give the people of Kosovo time to get their act together, to define their politics and begin to work among themselves, he said. His most immediate wish was to get an espresso machine for the devastated cafeteria at Koha Ditore. (Given the intimate link between coffee and politics, that is a kind of political project.)

Plus he planned to open a jazz club in Pristina. I suggested the name: Koha per Jazz or "Time for Jazz."

He bought it.

Anna Husarska is special correspondent for the New Republic.