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Serbian Government Backs Down On Legislative Changes Amid Street Protests

Protesters against the proposed changes have gathered in cities across Serbia.
Protesters against the proposed changes have gathered in cities across Serbia.

Serbia's government has backed down in the face of sizable public protests and withdrawn legislative changes that would have made it easier for the government to seize private property if deemed to be in the public interest.

The decision, announced on December 8, followed mounting public opposition to a $2.4 billion lithium mine in western Serbia proposed by the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto.

In a press release, the government said officials would revisit the changes "and, if it is determined that the law needs to be changed, will do so with a broad public debate that will include the professional public, professional associations, business representatives, and civil society."

The withdrawal of the amendments, and the protests, come amid mounting scrutiny of several Chinese-backed ventures, including a gold-and-silver mine, for alleged labor and environmental violations.

Unlike the Rio Tinto mine, however those projects have already received necessary permitting.

Last month, the Serbian parliament, which is dominated by the party allied with President Aleksandar Vucic, voted to amend a law making it easier for the state to seize private property if it is deemed to be in the national interest.

Vucic had until December 10 to sign the measure into law.

Vucic earlier signed new legislation that eliminated the minimum threshold for voter participation in national referendums -- theoretically making it easier to pass such referendums. Until now, a referendum was not considered valid if less than 50 percent of registered voters cast ballots.

Environmental and civil society groups said the amendments would pave the way for foreign companies, such as Rio Tinto, to circumvent popular discontent over such projects.

Protesters staged large demonstrations for two successive weekends earlier this month to protest the legislative changes, blocking streets in Belgrade and other major towns and cities.

The Rio Tinto project, which would have been Europe's largest lithium mine, had attracted sharp scrutiny.

Experts warned it could destroy farmland and further pollute Serbian waters. Rio Tinto, however, denied the project would endanger the environment and vowed to respect Serbian laws.

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