Five months after being liberated from Serb misrule by NATO bombs, Kosovo lives in premeditated political and economic limbo.

The United Nations Security Council is avoiding decisions on Kosovo beyond immediate human needs for the approaching harsh Balkan winter. Kosovo's future will gradually emerge from developments on the ground in months and years to come rather than from a blueprint drawn up now by statesmen sitting around a conference table.

This word picture is painted by the U.N. officials---including Secretary General Kofi Annan---who have taken on Kosovo as an international protectorate. Annan makes no apologies for requiring the ethnic Albanian majority of Kosovo to formally remain part of Slobodan Milosevic's Yugoslavia while living in virtual independence. The Security Council resolution that governs Kosovo establishes that fundamental contradiction, Annan acknowledges.

But it is not only the Kosovars who are left hanging by the unpublicized U.N. policy of kicking decisions on long-term economic development, property ownership and territory-wide political institutions for Kosovo as far down the road as possible.

NATO peacekeeping forces in Kosovo will have great difficulty in extricating themselves from a Kosovo that exists in a legal no-man's land still vulnerable to Serb reconquest. Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair and other alliance leaders invested too much prestige in helping Kosovo survive last spring to let it collapse or be victimized again.

The Kosovo Liberation Army also chafes under the U.N. refusal to move toward resolution, which for the KLA is immediate independence. The peacekeepers, the guerrillas, Milosevic and his restive subjects in Montenegro all have reasons to upset Annan's applecart of ambiguity sooner rather than later.

The journalistic mind also recoils from gray indecision, valuing clarity and facts above all. I began reporting on the limbo strategy convinced that there must be a better, more decisive course to follow--perhaps a big-power Balkans conference to redraw boundaries and settle things once and for all.

But after two long conversations with Annan and two days of participating in an Aspen Strategy Group discussion of the Balkans here, I am less persuaded of that. Waiting for Kosovo may be the best of the bad options available--if the limbo period is well managed.

Annan is aware of the dangers delay entails. "If we are not careful we could come to be seen as an occupation force by the people there," he told me. "That cannot be allowed to happen."

To avoid it two conditions must be met, says Veton Surroi, the independent-minded publisher who speaks for Kosovo's small, moderate intellectual community.

The Kosovars must see that the U.N. is doing nothing to block their path to eventual independence. And the interim administration has to work effectively to improve daily life in the territory. It must meet the police and civil service payrolls it manages, reopen power plants and get on with reconstruction and preparations for winter.

If these tasks are accomplished, a long-term international presence will be sustainable in Kosovo, Surroi believes. But he rejected the comfortable idea that time needs to be bought so democratic forces can overthrow Milosevic and make the Yugoslav republic a political entity Kosovars will rejoin willingly.

"It won't happen," Surroi said, "not even if Vaclav Havel were the president of Serbia." His citing of the high-minded Czech president contained irony and a clear message: The best outcome Serbia can hope for is a peaceful separation of Kosovo through referendum, as Havel permitted Slovakia.

The flaw here is that the U.N. administrators in Kosovo at present lack the budgetary and political support from the Security Council to keep a policy of uncertainty sustainable for very long. Bernard Kouchner, Annan's special representative on Kosovo, will deliver that message, in more specific terms, when he briefs the Council on Friday in New York.

"If we do not get the money to pay the teachers the $150-a-month stipend we promised, or the doctors $250 a month, then we will be encouraging a parallel government to take over the network we have started," Kouchner told me here Tuesday. His efforts to establish a functioning local administration to include the territory's major political groups seem to have been frustrated by excessive caution at U.N. headquarters as much as by conditions on the ground.

Annan will soon announce a date for local elections in 2000, probably at mid-year. But he is vague about timing for what he terms "territory-wide, rather than national, elections." Those would bring Kosovo uncomfortably close to what seems to me to be inevitable independence.

Creative ambiguity can be one of diplomacy's most effective tools. But it can quickly turn into destructive ambiguity if it just puts off the hard decisions. The United Nations must show that limbo leads where the Kosovars want to go and is not intended to be an endless tunnel to sidetrack them.