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BELGRADE (Reuters) - The arrest of Bosnian Serb war crimes suspect Radovan Karadzic will propel Serbia closer to the rest of Europe and signals a definitive break with the nationalism of the past.
His arrest on Serbian soil after 11 years on the run showed Serbia's two-week old government putting pragmatism before pride with the aim of pushing Serbs towards European Union membership, economic prosperity and the chance of a better life.
"This shows the government is serious about removing all obstacles on Serbia's path to the European Union," said political analyst Dusan Pavlovic.
"It is guided by the principle that the first and most painful moves should be tackled first, as a government is at its strongest at the beginning."
The government brings together the pro-Western Democratic Party of Serbia and the Socialist Party of Serbia once led by late nationalist autocrat Slobodan Milosevic, the architect of the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s.
The West has welcomed the arrest and many officials point to a new era for a nation that has spent most of the last 18 years isolated over its role in the wars, and mostly unrepentant.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the arrest was "very important for Serbia's European aspirations."
The EU has told Serbia progress towards EU membership depends on it delivering all war crimes fugitives to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague and facing up to the crimes committed in its name.
"It's a historic day, a day, I think, which is very important for Serbia," said Paddy Ashdown, who took a tough line against Bosnian Serb denial and defiance in almost four years as peace overseer in Bosnia.
"They can now begin to put the past behind them and move forward towards Europe."
Ljiljana Smajlovic, editor-in-chief of respected Serbian newspaper Politika, said the arrest vindicated Carla del Ponte, the former chief prosecutor at The Hague who said Serbia was capable of arresting all fugitives but lacked political will.
Del Ponte had said for years that Karadzic, his military commander Ratko Mladic and other fugitives were hiding in Serbia under the protection of hardliners in the security services.
But as recently as Monday morning, Serbia's point man for the Hague, Rasim Ljajic, told state media the authorities did not know for sure where the fugitives were hiding.
"The pressure to extradite Mladic will remain," Smajlovic said. "The Dutch especially will insist on that as a condition for the implementation of the Stabilization and Association Agreement (with the EU)."
The timing of the arrest -- just before a scheduled visit by The Hague chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz and an EU summit looking at Serbia's future in the bloc -- provided ammunition to critics who have long accused Serbia of lying.
"It does not come as a surprise that Karadzic is arrested now when Serbia must unblock its path towards the European Union," said Munira Subasic, head of a women's group from Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serb troops massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslims.
Croatia-based political analyst Davor Gjenero said it was "obvious that both Karadzic and Mladic have been within the reach of Serbian authorities."
"If and when Serbia arrests Mladic, only then we can talk about a clear sign that real political change has prevailed."
Karadzic and Mladic were indicted in 1995 on two counts of genocide, but Serbs are ambivalent to their recent history.
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in 2003 after sending Milosevic to the Hague and daring to investigate the paramilitary gangs that thrived in the 1990s.
One in three Serbs still vote for nationalist parties and consider men like Karadzic heroes.
Political analyst Djordje Vukadinovic said many other Serbs were not always supportive because they saw The Hague as biased, especially after it acquitted Kosovo Albanian Ramush Haradinaj and Bosnian Muslim Naser Oric of crimes against Serbs.
"In terms of foreign policy, it is going to be a huge success for the government," Vukadinovic said. "Among ordinary people, this move will deepen the feeling of injustice and double standards the international community uses for Serbia."
The Socialists say they will "analyze the circumstances under which Karadzic was arrested and demand that the Serbian public be informed about how long he had been in Serbia."
But they said the Interior Ministry -- the nerve centre of police and security forces run by Socialist leader Ivica Dacic -- had not been involved in locating and arresting Karadzic.
additional reporting by Igor Ilic in Zagreb, Maja Zuvela in Sarajevo, Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade, Olja Stanic in Banja Luka, Kate Kelland in London; Editing by Timothy Heritage