Prime Minister Mirko Cvetkovic said he has begun the process of removing Mladjan Dinkic, the deputy prime minister in charge of the economy, from the Cabinet after Dinkic accused the premier and Serbia's government of not doing enough to stave off the Balkan country's deep economic crisis. It has included high inflation, a sharp drop in living standards and a spate of strikes by workers demanding higher wages.
Dinkic said his G-17 party will for now remain in the government despite his ouster and that it will soon name his replacement in the Cabinet.
If Dinkic's party stops supporting Cvetkovic's government in Parliament, the coalition will fall apart and early parliamentary elections will have to be held. Parliament must vote on Cvetkovic's proposal to remove Dinkic.
Currently, Serbia's next national election is scheduled for 2012.
"This morning, I informed President Boris Tadic that the government cannot function and that those who are threatening its unity should be replaced," Cvetkovic told a hastily organized news conference. Cvetkovic blasted Dinkic, saying he is using his position for "personal promotion" and is no longer a team player.
Cvetkovic, however, stressed that other ministers from Dinkic's G-17 party have not been replaced. "I do not expect the government collapse," the prime minister said.
G-17 is a junior partner in the six-party coalition which has governed Serbia since 2008 with a slim majority.
Dinkic said he is sorry President Tadic doesn't like to hear "the truth" about the work of the government, "but it is a fact that the situation in the country is bad and that the changes are necessary."
The rift within the fragile coalition became apparent last week when Dinkic called into question Cvetkovic's authority. He said the premier lacks clout to do his job and that all power rests in the hands of the president.
"Our prime minister decides nothing," Dinkic told a TV talk show. "He is the premier and he should make decisions, but he doesn't," Dinkic said, calling some other Cabinet ministers "incompetent wimps."
Cvetkovic responded in a newspaper interview Friday that "anybody's who's grown tired ... can freely leave the Cabinet."
The rift comes as opposition nationalists are demanding early elections, claiming that Serbia's pro-Western government is incapable of leading the country out of the crisis.
AP writer Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.