Environmental organizations and citizens blocked traffic today throughout Serbia for two hours to demonstrate opposition to the new referendum and expropriation laws and Rio Tinto’s project for a lithium mine and processing plant. It was the biggest round of coordinated protests in Serbia in more than 20 years. During the protest, President Aleksandar Vučić visited one of the villages where Rio Tinto plans to open a mine and a processing plant to discuss with villagers the controversial laws.
Activists gathered at more than 60 locations in cities and towns and on roads across the country. Tens of thousands of people sent a message to the authorities to stop Rio Tinto’s Jadar project and the search for lithium in general and to protect the environment and civil rights in Serbia.
— Kristina 🐾 (@kris_urosevic) December 4, 2021
The simultaneous protests were coordinated by the Kreni-promeni campaign, Alliance of Environmental Organizations of Serbia (SEOS), Ekološki ustanak (Ecological Uprising), political platform Akcija, the Don’t Let Belgrade Drown movement, with the participation of numerous nongovernmental and political organizations, initiatives and informal groups.
The resistance escalated with the drafting and passing of the Law on Referendum and Civic Initiative and of the amendments to the Law on Expropriation. A string of rallies were held in Belgrade in the past few weeks.
Savo Manojlović from Kreni-promeni and the Association for the Protection of Constitutionality and Legality called on citizens to block the roads, bridges and streets for one hour longer every Saturday until the demands are accepted. He said the organizers want the Law on Expropriation to be revoked and the Law on Referendum and Civic Initiative to be changed.
Traffic was already brought to a standstill in several places seven days before, and there were several violent incidents. Many activists were arrested and the organizers accused the police of using excessive force. In the city of Šabac in the west, the demonstrators were attacked by a group of men they say is affiliated with the ruling party.
Biggest fight occurs in Novi Sad
This time, activists and journalists from all over Serbia said the police came to their homes and threatened to charge them with misdemeanors or felony crimes for promoting the gatherings.
Witnesses said a group of hooligans showed up at the protest today in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second-largest city, and attacked the people with bricks and bottles, which resulted in a scuffle. Several isolated incidents were seen at some of the protests.
— Dabetić Ivan (@IDabetic) December 4, 2021
People take Belgrade’s main bridge
Citizens blocked the central highway in the capital city on both sides of the Gazela bridge on the Sava river and occupied it. Other groups took control of three other bridges and several major roundabouts. Traffic was stopped at more than a dozen points in Belgrade territory.
Local demands, support from diaspora
People rallied at dozens of more locations than last weekend and the turnout grew significantly.
Demonstrators at different points in Serbia used the opportunity to highlight other environmental issues in their area. For instance, the people in Požarevac, a city east of Belgrade, also protested against a regional landfill project.
Aleksinac blokada pic.twitter.com/cu7fLUu1mB
— Shkaboo (@Boshko83) December 4, 2021
A group called Građanski preokret led the gathering in Zrenjanin in the northeast at the construction site of Linglong’s controversial tire factory. Environmentalists warn it would worsen living conditions in the city, where water from the waterworks is already polluted for two decades.
One of the rallies was held in Rekovac in central Serbia, in one of the areas where Balkan Mining and Minerals is searching for lithium.
Blokada kod Linglonga pic.twitter.com/VWmjb9CBMc
— Građanski preokret (@gpreokret) December 4, 2021
Serbian activists supported the protests by gathering in Berlin, New York City and at Rio Tinto’s headquarters in London.
— Miloš Budimir (@MilosBudimir) December 4, 2021
President of Serbia suggests at Rio Tinto’s project site he would initiate amending law
At the same time, President Aleksandar Vučić came to the village of Gornje Nedeljice in the Jadar area near Loznica in the west of Serbia and met with the locals to discuss Rio Tinto’s plans to build a lithium mine and processing plant. Others refused to sit down with him and blocked the main road.
After the protests, Vučić suggested that on December 6 he would initiate changes to the Law on Expropriation that the National Assembly passed, but claimed he would still have to enact it, arguing the legislation “is not unconstitutional” and citing a December 10 deadline.
The upcoming amendments need to be agreed upon with the people of the area that are affected by Rio Tinto’s lithium project, he said. Otherwise, in Vučić’s words, the original law will be reinstated. The proposal will be launched under an emergency procedure and lawmakers may vote on the bill before the end of the year, according to the president.
The Law on Expropriation has implications for all kinds of projects that the government declares are in the public interest, like other areas where lithium is explored, but also a wide range of public and private investments.