Serbia scraps US2.4bn lithium mine project amid heavy protests as election looms
After Novak Djokovic’s vaccine travails, relations between Serbia and Australia have suffered further as the Serb authorities scrapped Rio Tinto’s lithium mine project.
The mine could have made Serbia one of the world’s largest producers of the highly sought-after metal used in the manufacturing of electric vehicles.
The UK-Australian mining firm said it was surprised by the decision, which followed Djokovic’s deportation ahead of the Australian Open. There have been numerous environmental protests across Serbia, blocking roads and bridges.
The Serb authorities were publicly supporting the US$2.4-billion project despite the growing public anger.
The world’s number one men’s tennis player has supported the protests against the controversial lithium mine.
Last month he posted pictures on social media of demonstrators and countryside along with comments in Serbian saying, “clean air and water are the keys to health” and “nature is our mother”.
Djokovic, who is unvaccinated against Covid, was deported from Australia on Sunday
Prime Minister Ana Brnabic announced Rio Tinto’s mining licences were being cancelled in a television address. “We put an end to Rio Tinto in Serbia,” she said.
Brnabic, Serbia’s first woman and first openly gay prime minister, faces a general election in April.
It is unlikely that the decision is related to Djokovic’s visa spat rather than the looming election. The $2.4 billion investment outweighs Djokovic’s significance to the Belgrade authorities. Months of protests might have focused minds with their impressive organisation, unity and broad support beyond the usual coalition of opposition protesters.
The movement might inspire parallel activists in other countries.
Brnabic would struggle in April’s election while roads were blocked and being accused of having foreign investors dominating domestic interests.
Demonstrators say the plans for a large mine near Loznica in the Jadar Valley would irreparably damage the landscape and contaminate water supplies.
Activists say protests will continue until the government bans all lithium and borate mining projects in the country.
Rio Tinto claimed the mine would meet Serb and European Union environmental standards.
It said it was “extremely concerned” by the decision as its share price tumbled.
“Rio Tinto is reviewing the legal basis of this decision and the implications for our activities and our people in Serbia,” the firm said.
The Australian government stated: “We note the strong economic benefits of the significant investment by Rio Tinto in Serbia.”
Anti-mine protests in Serbia. Picture credit: YouTube