After Bosnia-Herzegovina's government vowed to transition to green energy by 2050, coal miners say their communities will be devastated by shutdowns.
On November 23, 6,800 miners put down their tools and took to the streets of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, to protest what they say are rapidly declining working conditions and reduced salaries.
But the once-formidable bargaining power of Bosnia's miners may be running out.
Within three decades, all of Bosnia's coal mines and coal-fired energy plants will be closed. That's according to a November 2020 pledge made by the government as one of the goals set for Bosnia eventually joining the EU.
The Western Balkans is plagued by Europe's worst air pollution. On still winter days, smoke from residential fireplaces and coal plants settles so thickly over some towns that it can be uncomfortable to breathe outside.
But coal miners say the aggressive goals set by the "green" pledge will hollow out towns that have relied on coal mining for generations.
Armel Jekalovic, who oversees operations at the Breza mine, told AFP that "this situation around the energy transition worries us." The 36-year old says he and his colleagues in the historic mine "are aware" of the pressure from the EU for Bosnia to transition to renewable energy, but says: "we want to be confident that it will happen in a reasonable way. We don't want to be told, 'Well, the mine is closing today.'"
In early 2021 Elektroprivreda BiH, a state-run power company, announced it would cut its staff from 7,200 to 5,200 over the next three years. The move was in part an attempt to transition away from coal. The announcement exacerbated a long-running dispute that eventually led to the November 23 strike and protests.
Seventy-five percent of electricity in Bosnia is generated by coal-fired power stations and the 2050 commitment to shut the industry down sets the stage for a dramatic economic and cultural shift.
Bosnia boasts relatively large coal reserves that would be sufficient to sustain the country at current levels for more than 250 years. The mining industry directly employs more than 17,000 people and supports many other related jobs in Bosnia.
Denis Zisko, an energy and climate-change program coordinator in Bosnia, says the gradual extinction of the coal industry is inevitable regardless of any green targets. "That's the reality," he told AFP, "it doesn't depend on politics, it's purely economics." Bosnia's coal industry is propped up with state subsidies that keep consumer prices low.
But Edin Delic, a professor at the Faculty of Mining and Geology in Tuzla, told AFP the energy revolution planned for Bosnia was "rash" and points to the relatively tiny output of carbon emissions from Bosnia compared to countries such as China.
"Bosnia is a small player on this stage but can suffer very heavy economic consequences," Delic said.
Written by Amos Chapple, based on reporting from AFP and RFE/RL's Balkan Service