President Boris Tadic says he is ready to talk to Kosovo Albanian leaders, arrest war crimes suspects and put Serbia's languishing economic reform plan back on the fast track toward European Union membership.
"My motto is: if you have a problem, attack it immediately," he told Reuters late on Wednesday, as news swept the Balkans of the EU's rebuff to neighbouring Croatia for failing to arrest of a top Hague tribunal fugitive.
"We know that we won't get any discount on cooperation with the Hague tribunal," said Tadic. "And Croatia too needs to pass all its exams to qualify for the EU, not just some of them."
Tadic barely conceals his impatience. At 47 he is a man with leadership ambitions in a largely ceremonial post made for an elder statesman. His Democratic Party is in opposition and his conservative rival Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is in the driving seat - and stuck in the slow lane, according to Tadic.
When Kostunica goes Serbia will shift gear, Tadic said. But he carefully gave no hint of when power might change hands.
Kostunica's minority coalition survived its first year only by re-enlisting the discredited Socialists of former autocrat Slobodan Milosevic as a prop, said Tadic. This put the brakes on everywhere, leading to a barren stability from inertia, he said.
Kostunica approached the EU like a man trying to board a fast-moving train step by step, Tadic said. "The only way for today's Serbia to join the European Union is by very fast, carefully planned and precisely implemented reforms."
"If you can't operate on people, don't be a surgeon," he said, blaming Kostunica for failure to lead. "I'm sure there's a significant pro-European, pro-democracy majority in Serbia."
INTENSE, PARALLEL MANHUNTS
The month of March is pregnant with painful memories for Serbs.
In 1999, NATO began bombing Serbia over its Kosovo crackdown. Last year, Albanian mobs punched through the thin skin of NATO protection to strike at Kosovo Serbs. Two years ago, an assassin acting for a reactionary underworld clan shot dead reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic.
"Today we're at the same stage Zoran Djindjic left. There's no real improvement," said Tadic. "You can't imagine how frustrating it is to me as president. I see things we can achieve in a short time, but we're waiting."
Kostunica's refusal to arrest those accused of war crimes only wastes time, said Tadic. He may have persuaded some to surrender in 2005, but catching former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic remained the big challenge, just as arresting Ante Gotovina was now the main puzzle facing neighbour Croatia.
"We're in the same situation. We must either arrest Mladic and Gotovina or prove they are not here. Both Serbs and Croats must cooperate. The only way is to look for Ratko Mladic and Ante Gotovina every day, every hour, every minute."
Tadic made a risky 2-day tour of Kosovo last month. He said he saw "ghettoes and frightened people" - now Serbs are the victims, but not long ago it was the Albanians, he said - neither is tolerable.
Kosovo is a Serbian province, but Albanians say they will never again accept Belgrade rule after the 1998-99 war which cost more than 12,000 lives. "We have to find a solution which today does not exist legally and politically," Tadic admitted.
"I understand the legitimate interests of the Albanians in building their own future. But at the same time, I respect the legitimate interest of Serbs in Kosovo to be linked to Serbia.
"Right now I am totally ready to meet Albanian leaders in Kosovo and Albania. We have to find a solution."
(Additional reporting by Monika Lajhner).