BELGRADE, May 23 (Reuters) - A sense of abandonment in Belgrade following Montenegro's decision to declare independence gave way to signs on Tuesday that Serbs were contemplating the benefits of going it alone.
Fifteen years after Slovenia seceded from the Yugoslav federation, followed by Croatia, Macedonia and then Bosnia, Montenegro, the closest of the Serbs' cousins in the land of the southern Slavs, has opted to leave too.
"After three years of tortuous bickering with Montenegro, Serbia can turn to itself and get its own house in order," wrote the pro-government Serb daily Politika.
"Finally I can support my own team!" said student Djordje Jovanovic of the country's sporting prospects.
Since 2003 and the revamping of their joint state, Serbs have grown tired of the seemingly interminable saga of Montenegro's quest for independence, which climaxed on Sunday.
Official preliminary results on Tuesday confirmed a victory for the independence bloc, effectively ending a union with Serbia dating back in various forms to 1918.
Grudging acceptance gave way to a sense of opportunity and to relief that a loveless marriage had come to an amicable end.
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said he would wait for the full result before responding, but his political rival, President Boris Tadic, accepted the vote and promised to visit Montenegro and congratulate its people in person.
"I invite all citizens of Montenegro to offer the hand of cooperation and reconciliation," said Tadic.
Weary of Balkan disintegration, it was the European Union in 2003 that persuaded Podgorica to revise its relationship with Belgrade, abandoning "Yugoslavia" for a looser, and ultimately dysfunctional, state union of Serbia-Montenegro.
Montenegro is proud that its exit went without a hitch, unlike Bosnia and Croatia where wars of secession from Serb-dominated Yugoslavia claimed some 200,000 lives.
Montenegro's departure means Serbia can now turn to more pressing issues such as negotiations on the potential independence of its southern Kosovo province -- which is likely to be a far more painful blow.
Belgrade must also consider its own EU aspirations, currently in limbo because it failed to hand over Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic to the tribunal in The Hague.
Serbia, with 10 times more people than Montenegro, footed the lion's share of the bill for a union that shared only a diplomatic corps, a defence ministry and numerous official cars.
"Perhaps this is for the best," said popular Serbian cabinet minister Velimir Ilic. "Serbia has spent long enough worrying about others and spending money on others. The time has come for Serbia to work for itself."
A hint of ill-feeling remained. Serbian Labour Minister Slobodan Lalovic said Montenegrins in Serbia would become "foreigners", subject to the red tape, working permits and residence documents so despised by other non-Serbs.
Under the terms of their 2003 agreement, Serbia is the successor state and inherits all the rights and obligations of the union, including the seat at the United Nations.
An independent Montenegro, Serbs like to point out, will have to start from scratch.
"Serbia is in a far better position than the 'reborn state' of our departing brothers," wrote Politika.