By Douglas Hamilton
BELGRADE (Reuters) - The tottering union of Serbia and Montenegro, salvaged from the ruins of Yugoslavia in 2003, was under mounting strain on Friday as the union president hinted he may quit, a step that could hasten a divorce.
Amid an escalating political row that has highlighted doubts about how long the union can last, President Svetozar Marovic -- a Montenegrin -- said he was demoralised by the 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, complaining malevolent fabrications had caused him "agonies".
"If you need a victim for the sake of good relations between Serbia and Montenegro, I agree to it."
The statement was the latest salvo in a row between Marovic and Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic, who has accused a union minister of corruption in a dispute over costs and whom the president accused of "slanders".
In the 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, would anyone replace him?
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 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. But some politicians on both sides are decidedly against prolonging the union.
DON'T BREAK UP
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 on a pact which would set the union on the first rung of the ladder to EU membership due to start next month, Brussels is warning Montenegro that separation would radically slow its prospects. But the warning is being ignored.
In Belgrade, the liberal daily Danas says it is 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 earlier this month when Dinkic accused the union's defence minister, Prvoslav Davinic, of corruption for authorising an armed forces procurement deal behind the back of the Serbian government and at highly inflated prices.
The union was dragged in via allegations from Dinkic and others that this was a case of Montenegrins robbing the Serb taxpayer.
After several days of public name-calling, Davinic last week agreed to resign, but said he was the innocent victim of a set-up.
But he is still in office and the row has moved on.
Dinkic now say the president must also bear responsibility for the defence contract that, in his words, would have been "the robbery of the century" had it gone through.
Marovic also came under fire earlier this week for refusing to represent the union at the United Nations general assembly and 60th anniversary summit in New York, apparently due to squabbling over who should go and whom they should meet.
The union sent Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic instead. But Montenegro also sent its foreign minister, Miodrag Vlahovic, who pointedly noted he would be discussing independence.