It has been a weekend of protests in Serbia over environmental issues that have whipped up environmental activists and ordinary citizens to get out onto the streets across the country.
Protesters turned out in Belgrade, Novi Sad and other towns on November 27 in protest against legislation they say favours foreign investors — specifically Rio Tinto, which is trying to develop the giant Jadar lithium project in the country. There were several clashes between police and protesters, who blocked roads and bridges.
The action on Saturday was followed by a mass protest in Belgrade on November 28 against air pollution in the Serbian capital.
Saturday’s protests concerned two steps by the authorities. The first is changes to the rules on referendums that environmental and civil society groups say will in practice block initiatives to prevent polluting projects by introducing high administrative fees. Secondly, protesters oppose Serbia’s new expropriation law that enables speedy mandatory acquisitions of private land by the state.
Protesters claim the two pieces of legislation were adopted specifically to enable Rio Tinto’s planned lithium project at Jadar to go ahead. The project has sparked strong opposition from environmental groups and local residents, who fear it will pollute farmland and water in the area. The authorities have said a referendum will take place on the project but no date has yet been set.
For its part, Rio Tinto says the project will be in line with the highest environmental standards. The metal is in growing demand as it is used in electric vehicles and other applications, and the company says the Jadar project will enable it to become Europe’s biggest supplier of lithium for at least 15 years.
Hundreds of people joined the protest action on November 27 when activists blocked roads and bridges for one hour. Several clashes with police were reported. The most serious incident was in Sabac, western Serbia, where activists videoed an excavator they said was driven by supporters of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) trying to drive through a group of protesters. One of the protesters, who climbed into the vehicle and managed to switch off the engine, was arrested.
In Novi Sad, a large crowd of people blocked Duga Bridge, and scuffled with police who tried to move then aside to allow traffic to pass. Several arrests were made.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic criticised the protesters for restricting movement and freedom “something that no one had done for decades”, local media reported.
This was followed by a protest in downtown Belgrade on November 28 that the organisers said was attended by between 15,000 and 20,000 people. (Serbian state media say the total was considerably lower.)
Coal has a large share in Serbia’s energy mix and air pollution from coal power is a problem across most of the Western Balkans region, as well as beyond its borders.
While Rio Tinto’s Jadar project was the focus of the November 27 protests, there are also concerns about pollution from the country’s coal-fired power plants and major industrial companies such as Zijin Bor and the HBIS steel mill, which have both been acquired by Chinese investors in recent years.
“[T]he popular revolt continues through a new protest, the format is different, the topic is air pollution!” said the Eko Straza website, where the protests were announced. “Rio Tinto is not the only environmental or social problem to protest. 50 people in Serbia die from pollution every day.”
More protests against air pollution are planned across the country on December 12.