BELGRADE, Sept 16 (Reuters) - The tottering union of Serbia and Montenegro, salvaged from the ruins of Yugoslavia in 2003, was closer to collapse on Friday after its president hinted he may quit and withdraw Montenegrin officials.
The union has long been under attack by critics in both republics as a marriage of convenience doomed to divorce. Now, an escalating political row has cast doubts on its chances of lasting even a few more months.
President Svetozar Marovic -- a Montenegrin -- said he was demoralised by his job and hinted at resignation.
"I have not felt comfortable in this post for a long time and it has been getting more difficult by the day," he said. "If you need a victim for the sake of good relations between Serbia and Montenegro, I agree to it."
Marovic complained that allegations of corruption levelled against him by Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic were malicious fabrications that had caused him "agonies".
His chef de cabinet Vule Tomasevic later told Serbia's Beta news agency that Marovic was considering whether "to withdraw from Belgrade the Montenegrin part of the union's administrative personnel until the issue is clarified ..."
Dinkic was setting himself up as "prosecutor, judge and executioner", Tomasevic said. "That's not a state union ... it's a state in which Montenegro could not be more than a region."
The statements were the latest salvoes in a row between Marovic and Dinkic, who forced the resignation of union Defence Minister Prvslav Davinic last week in a scandal over an allegedly unauthorised and corrupt deal for army equipment.
In their brawl over the past two weeks, the spirit of the union has taken such a beating that some commentators consider it already dead, posing a question: if Marovic resigned now, would anyone replace him?
LOPSIDED AND UNLOVED
Serbia has eight million people, Montenegro 650,000. They run separate currencies and operate separate customs laws, sharing a weak joint council that critics say is dysfunctional, and a union that is torn by multiplying calls for separation.
Montenegro's ruling party, of which Marovic is a member, aims to end the union and is intent on holding an independence referendum as soon as February -- the earliest date permitted under the charter brokered by the European Union.
In a poll this week, 41.6 percent of Montenegrins backed independence and 34.5 opposed it. Polls show no clear trend among Serbs, who have no referendum plan.
Some politicians on both sides are decidedly against prolonging the union. Analyst Djordje Vukadinovic said it was interesting that the feuding ministers both come from parties which want to separate Serbia and Montenegro.
Brussels, however, wants to discourage further fragmentation in the Balkans, fearing the emergence of an independent Montenegro and a possibly independent Kosovo in 2006 may inspire independence demands in ethnically divided Bosnia and Macedonia.
With talks due to start next month on a pact which would set the union on the first rung of the ladder to EU membership, Brussels is warning Montenegro that separation would radically slow its prospects. But the warning is being ignored.
Belgrade's liberal daily Danas said it was high time Serbia consider "if there is any sense on insisting on the state union if it has no serious partner on the other side to support it".
The dispute erupted when Dinkic accused Davinic of signing an army deal behind the back of the Serbian government. The union was dragged in via allegations from Dinkic and others that some Montenegrins were robbing the Serb taxpayer.
After several days of name-calling, Davinic last week agreed to resign, but said he was the innocent victim of a set-up.