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'Like Someone Cutting Off Your Arms And Legs': Rio Tinto's Lithium Mine Sparks Anger In Serbia

A sign saying "Access forbidden to unauthorized persons" is displayed in front of a house bought by Rio Tinto in Gornje Nedeljice.

BELGRADE -- Zlatko Kokanovic lives at ground zero of an idyllic stretch of western Serbia that investors hope to tunnel, quarry, and transform into Europe's biggest lithium mine.

A trained veterinarian and farmer, he's not interested in the 1,000 or so long-term jobs that Anglo-Australian metals and mining giant Rio Tinto is promising.

The 45-year-old father of five just wants to keep his home alongside 200 or so neighbors in the village of Gornje Nedeljice, near Loznica in the fertile Jadar Valley.

"All my property is in the mine zone -- planned landfills and other infrastructure," Kokanovic tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

Rio Tinto's $2.4 billion plan is to "make Serbia a major global producer" of the soft, silvery metal that fuels much of the world's growing fleet of electric vehicles. In 2004, local subsidiary Rio Sava discovered lithium in a new mineral that has since been named "jadarite" after the region.

Rio Tinto still hasn't published an environmental impact study for Serbian authorities or the Serbian public to scrutinize, although it hopes to start building the mine next year and have it operational by 2026.

The Jadar mine project calls for the relocation of around 50 households in Gornje Nedeljice and two other villages -- Slatina and Brezjak -- with a combined population of around 1,000 people.

Gornje Nedeljice
Gornje Nedeljice

Around 330 more plots of land need to be purchased from their owners to make room for the sprawling, 250-hectare underground mining complex.

"I still have a house and a garden. Living in the countryside and not having land -- it's like someone cutting off your arms and legs," Kokanovic says. "You can't do anything."

But could this and other running disputes over a handful of contentious, foreign-backed ventures also take the political legs out from under Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his ruling party as they look ahead to a crucial trifecta of elections in just a few months?

A general view of the village of Gornje Nedeljice where Rio Tinto plans to build an underground mine.
A general view of the village of Gornje Nedeljice where Rio Tinto plans to build an underground mine.

Out of desperation and along with at least 10,000 other residents allied under an association called Loznica Against Rio Tinto, Kokanovic has turned to activism to fight the project.

And Loznica, a city of around 80,000 residents, is not alone.

Serbian public opposition has also swirled around several Chinese-backed ventures, including a gold-and-silver mine that opened a month ago near Bor, a steel mill that belches red dust on the village of Radinac, and a planned tire factory accused of using "slave" Vietnamese labor for its construction in Zrenjanin.

Connecting The Dots

Then last month, intense protests over the potential fallout for Serbians from such foreign-backed industrial projects spread to the capital, too.

Major demonstrations and targeted traffic blockades erupted in Belgrade and other cities as thousands of Serbians expressed anger over the passage of two government-sponsored bills, one to establish new rules for expropriating private property and the other eliminating the turnout threshold for national referendums.

Protesters cited fears of life in an "occupied" country, alongside signs like, "You're Suffocating Us," and references to the "dangerous air" that ranks Serbia among the most polluted places in Europe.

Major demonstrations and targeted traffic blockades erupted in Belgrade and other cities.
Major demonstrations and targeted traffic blockades erupted in Belgrade and other cities.

Despite arrests and roving bands of youths attacking some of the protesters, crowds variously organized by environmental groups, civic initiatives, and opposition parties have continued their demonstrations to demand a reversal of the legislation and other changes.

Many of the protesters and civic associations that have mobilized to challenge Belgrade are calling for an end to projects that further damage Serbia's environment.

Experts attribute the country's pollution problems to a heavy dependance on dirty coal, which spews particulate matter in addition to sulfur dioxide, for its thermal power plants, lax regulations, and an explosion in the number of vehicles, among other things.

Rightly or not, protesters are connecting the dots between a consolidation of power by Vucic and his populist Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), uncertainty around the terms being offered to deep-pocketed foreigners, and decades of environmental neglect that have contributed to the runaway pollution.

'Bigger Than Any Politics'

Analysts have long cited democratic backsliding, state capture, economic stagnation, and demographic decline among Serbia's biggest challenges.

More recently they, too, have added environmental destruction to the list.

"We have seen this trend for a while now, but lately we see that it really is triggering and mobilizing masses," says Aleksandra Tomanic, executive director of the European Fund for the Balkans (EFB), which promotes democracy and citizen empowerment in the region.

"All my property is in the mine zone -- planned landfills and other infrastructure," Zlatko Kokanovic tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service.
"All my property is in the mine zone -- planned landfills and other infrastructure," Zlatko Kokanovic tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

EFB's work has included a clean-air project to help tackle a region-wide pollution problem.

She cites the placement of major Balkan cities near the top of global pollution charts, and a World Health Organization estimate that thousands of people in Serbia are dying every year from the harmful effects of air pollution.

"The latest protests can be seen in this context -- it is literally a fight for basic human dignity, much bigger than any politics," Tomanic says. "And I would dare to say even bigger than environmentalism alone."

One of the world's top three metals and mining companies, Rio Tinto has pledged to maintain local and EU environmental and industrial standards at Jardar.

Reports of alleged financial and other wrongdoing among Rio Tinto holdings around the world could intensify the Serbian public debate.

But Tomanic cites alleged Serbian government inaction in the face of existing threats like air and water quality, and says that "dirty investment is being sold as employment triggers that will bring an increase in living conditions," adding, "That is unfortunately not true."

'Strategically Important'

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic has explicitly dismissed any link between Rio Tinto's plans and the new legislation on referendums and expropriation.

She has said Rio Tinto and Rio Sava have purchased all the land they own so far -- sources put it at around 40 percent of what they eventually need -- and predicted that "not a single plot...should be expropriated."

But both laws could significantly ease obstacles to the Jadar mine -- including by forcing Kokanovic off his land -- and other foreign-backed investments that the Serbian government has courted.

Roads Blocked In Protest Against New Serbian Laws Decried By Environmentalists
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Vucic, who has vowed that "nothing concerning Rio Tinto will happen until the people decide," signed the bill eliminating a minimum turnout for a referendum almost immediately after allies in his dominant SNS party approved it.

He said on November 30 that it "seems" likely he'll do the same with the expropriation bill, which would force property sales that are said to be in the public interest.

Vucic blamed the protests on "a small number of people" and called the roadblocks a violation of Serbia's constitution and other citizens' freedom of movement.

If the disputed [legislative] changes are not withdrawn in the coming days, we will be forced to radicalize the blockades until the demands are met."
-- Association of Environmental Organizations of Serbia

Energy, Development, and Environmental Protection Minister Zorana Mihajlovic has called the Jadar mine "strategically important" to the country.

The ruling SNS party currently has a tight grip on power that most analysts expect to continue when Serbians go to the polls for presidential, parliamentary, and local Belgrade elections in April 2022.

Vucic and Brnabic have spent years trying to open new paths for foreign investment to Serbia to kick-start an economy hurt by perceived corruption, labor, and infrastructure problems, as well as brain drain.

They and their allies appear to be gambling that enough of the country's 7 million people are equally keen on outside investment and sufficiently weary of economic sluggishness to look past perceived drawbacks of projects like the Jardar mine.

The strategy could pay off, with the World Bank recently predicting an acceleration of economic growth to 6 percent for the year and 4 percent in the medium term.

But World Bank country manager Nicola Pontara also noted that beyond other improvements, Serbia would be well-served by a "green transition" and "an emphasis on less polluting and more energy-efficient industries."

'Radicalization' Warning

For now, the environmentally minded critics of Serbia's government aren't going away.

At least 280,000 people have signed an online petition urging Brnabic and Mihajlovic to "stop the lithium mine" and telling its would-be investors to "get out of Serbia."

A constitutional challenge by two environmental associations is in the works on the grounds that local authorities rezoned Loznica for the Jadar mine without any assessment of its environmental impact.

And an umbrella group called the Association of Environmental Organizations of Serbia (SEOS) this week threatened to step up its work organizing roadblocks and other radical tactics.

It accused officials of a "shameful reshaping of the constitution tailored to multinational companies."

"If the disputed [legislative] changes are not withdrawn in the coming days," the group said on November 28, "we will be forced to radicalize the blockades until the demands are met."

The SEOS condemned attacks on protesters by police and others, including an incident in which an excavator came dangerously close to crashing through a group of protesters.

Written and reported by Andy Heil in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Nevena Bogdanovic
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    Nevena Bogdanovic

    Nevena Bogdanovic is a correspondent based in Belgrade for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.