Serbia government backs down on controversial lithium mine after heavy protests
Thousands of protesters in Belgrade and other urban areas have blocked main roads to oppose plans for a lithium mine, despite a heavy-handed response from the authorities on demonstrations.
The increasingly autocratic President Aleksandar Vucic has called the road and bridge blockades illegal and claims they are internationally financed to create instability.
The protests represent an unwelcome challenge for Vucic and Serbia’s Progressive Party (SNS) government ahead of next year’s election.
Serbia’s parliamentarians have lowered a referendum threshold on major projects and drafted a law to allow the quicker expropriation of people’s homes near construction projects. Environmentalists say the moves are designed to allow the 150-year-old firm to open its lithium mine.
The UK-Australian firm discovered lithium in the Loznica region in 2006 and has been buying up land in the area.
Environmentalists say the mine will irreversibly pollute drinking water supplies.
World number one tennis player Novak Djokovic shared a photo of a Belgrade protest on Instagram and said “clean air, water and food are keys to health”.
“Without that, every word about ‘health’ is obsolete,” the Serbian star said.
The government said it proposed amending the referendum law to withdraw a requirement that civil society groups must pay fees to launch initiatives for a referendum.
The authorities stated the expropriation law would be withdrawn to allow more public discussion while the referendum law would face amendment.
Vucic said: “We have to see if we want that mine or not, and there should be a public debate about it. I want to calm people down and tell them that we are on your side and we will not make any decisions without you.”
“I am proud that police have not used water canons [against protesters]. The democracy here is fragile and we have to keep it,” the president said in a national address.
In late November masked men attacked protesters in Sabac, western Serbia, sparking outrage on social media and accusations the government was using thugs to silence protests.
Protesters have demanded the government publish its agreement with Rio Tinto, which has pledged to invest US$2.4 billion in the lithium scheme.
Rio Tinto faces accusations of corruption, environmental destruction and human rights abuses at its global mining sites.
Lithium is used in electric car batteries.
Protesters brought Belgrade to a standstill. Picture credit: YouTube