The victory of Marija Serifovic at the 2007 Eurovision song contest caused an outpouring of national pride in Serbia, a country more used to rebuffs from Europe over its wartime past than to accolades.

Serbs took to the streets with flags, tooting horns and chanting winning entry "Molitva" (Prayer) until the early hours. Newspapers were dominated by the win: "Marija takes over Europe" and "European Prayer for Serbia" among their headlines.

"A rare time when I was proud to be Serb," wrote user Zarko on the Web site of the popular B92 broadcasting network.

"I'm so glad it wasn't some war song," said Aleksandar Tijanic, director of RTS state television. "Hosting this event in Belgrade next year will mean we have finally crossed into normality."

The victory could go some way towards assuaging Serbia's persecution syndrome: the country's role in the Yugoslav wars made it an international pariah for a decade. Many Serbs feel they were unfairly blamed by Western politicians and media.

"To those who say 'the world is against us', this shows Europe doesn't hate us, it gives ample reward when it's due," another user wrote on the B92 blog site.

The competition showcased the usual tactical voting, where states vote for neighbors or allies: Serbia's passionate ballad got the maximum 12 points from all fellow ex-Yugoslavs, even those that were its enemies in the wars of the 1990s, Croatia and Bosnia.

The contest was political for Serbia even after the voting.

Congratulations came from the European Union, which had criticized Belgrade last week for electing an ultranationalist to a top post while the pro-Western parties bickered over a coalition more than three months since an inconclusive election.

An 11th hour deal on Friday that spared the country new polls was met with relief in the West, keen to keep the Balkans' biggest country from the warmongering nationalism of the 1990s.

"Congratulations," EU Commissioner Olli Rehn told state news agency Tanjug. "This is a European vote for a European Serbia."

Serifovic, representing the country in Helsinki on Saturday night in its Eurovision debut as an independent state, said "a new chapter opened for Serbia, and not only in music".

Serbians were briefly the darlings of European after ousting the late nationalist strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, but failed elections, political assassinations and a persistently strong nationalist vote soon soured the mood.

The EU froze talks on closer ties last May, accusing Serbia of still harbouring war crime suspects, and Montenegro voted to leave their common sate. Serbs must still go through lengthy and invasive visa procedures to travel almost anywhere in Europe.

The West also backs the independence of the breakaway Kosovo province, which has been run by the United Nations since 1999, when 78 days of NATO bombing ousted Serb troops who had killed 10,000 ethnic Albanians in a counter-insurgency war.

The victory also gave hope to Serbia's tiny and harassed gay community, who celebrated the lesbian chic-tinged performance as a rare sight in the conservative Christian Orthodox country.

"A big win for Serbia, a small step for gay rights!" said one partygoer, leaving Belgrade's only gay-friendly club.