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Serbia: how an eco movement challenged the government and won

Serbia: how an eco movement challenged the government and won
©EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC  |   A protestor wears a mask while blocking the streets in front of the government headquarters during a protest against Rio Tinto's plans to open a lithium mine in Belgrade, Serbia, 18 December 2021.

With elections looming in Serbia, the Vucic regime, which has an almost complete political and mediatic grip of the country, faced an unexpected challenge. Crowds mobilised for an environmental cause – and won.

Civil disobedience as a political tool

The end of 2021 in Serbia was marked by large environmental protests that forced President Aleksandar Vucic to change his decision. This is a great and important victory for the citizens who won the fight to keep institutions work in the public interest (at least for now). The environmental movement gained momentum in Serbia this year due to the great dissatisfaction of citizens with the quality of the air they breathe, dissatisfaction with the work of many Chinese factories that pollute the environment, as well as the announcement of new factories that would have dangerous consequences for the environment. The turning point was the project of the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto to mine lithium in Serbia, which eventually had to be suspended.

This is only the second time in ten years of power that Aleksandar Vucic has relented under the pressure of the citizens. Such a concession took place for the first time in 2020, when a large number of citizens gathered in the streets dissatisfied with President Vucic’s announcement that he would reintroduce curfew after the parliamentary elections. That time police used force to suppress riots, while during the latest wave of street demonstrations, hooligans  were activated by the ruling party to violently prevent protesters from blocking traffic. Citizens have blocked highways and local roads once a week for the past month to express their civil disobedience. This is the first time in twenty-five years that citizens have used civil disobedience as a form of political struggle.

Ahead of the protest, the leaders of the environmental movement announced that they would not stop blocking traffic if the two demands of the protest are not met, namely the withdrawal of the law on expropriation and the law on referendum. The on expropriation would give the Government of Serbia the discretionary right to declare certain projects as projects of public interest at its discretion and without pre-prescribed criteria and conditions, and anyone's property could become the subject of expropriation. The changes would also enable private companies to be beneficiaries of expropriation, because the law says that the list of beneficiaries of expropriation can be "in accordance with a special law". This may be especially the case in the field of mining, if we keep in mind that the Mining Law allows private mining companies to be beneficiaries of expropriation. This proposed amendment to the law mentions for the first time the expropriation of land under an international agreement, even private land and private property, including private agricultural land. Thus, any and anyone's property can become the subject of expropriation.

The government’s weapon of choice: the hooligans

During the first protest held a month ago, there were serious incidents throughout Serbia. Police used excessive force in several situations, while hooligans attacked protesters with batons and hammers in several places. The hooligans were organized by the authorities to beat up the citizens, while the police withdrew at that moment and did not prevent violent clashes. This is the first time in Serbia that we have a situation where the police do not maintain public order and peace, but withdraw in front of hooligans whose task is to beat and intimidate protesters. It is already known in Serbia that there is a paramilitary wing of the Serbian Progressive Party that does the dirty business, and in return is rewarded with citizens' money, employment, but also permission to carry out various illegal activities without sanctions. Hooligan groups serve government officials to do what the police must not do, which is open violence and intimidation of citizens.

Such brutal attacks against citizens were the reason why many more people from all over Serbia gathered at the next protest. This time there were no hooligans or police because the size of the crowds exceeded the possibilities of hooligans to deal with the protesters. Protest organizers have announced they will not stop protesting if President Vucic signs the two disputed laws. The blockade of highways and international roads posed a challenge to the government as traffic across the country stalled for several hours. Because of such actions of the demonstrators, the representatives of the authorities called them terrorists and false ecologists. Although president Vucic initially said that he would sign the laws and that they would come into force, only a few days later, after the protest, Vucic changed his decision. In the time of the absolute rule of Aleksandar Vucic and his party, this kind of pressure created by the citizens represents a great victory for all dissatisfied citizens. The Constitution was being defended in the streets of Serbian cities, as there is no opposition able to do that in Parliament.

The recent resolution written by the European Parliament mentioned concerns over increasing violence by extremist and hooligan groups against peaceful environmental demonstrations in the country, referencing recent protests in Serbia against the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto’s projected lithium mine, and protests over the laws on Expropriation and Referendum.

The key to get people to stand up: clear demands and goals

During the last few years, the Serbian president has faced several waves of protests that lasted for several months, but without any political wins. The main challenge was that opposition politicians could not stand in front protesters because they would be booed by the gathered citizens. Politicians mostly hid in the mass of citizens and supported civil protests. Ad hoc protests with many demands failed to meet almost any demand, and citizens eventually got tired of knowing they had no one to vote for. During the previous two years, the opposition in Serbia has strengthened and grouped, which has enabled some dissatisfied citizens to have someone to vote for in the next elections.

However, the success of this protest lies in the fact that citizens have gathered around one goal, and that is to stop the lithium mining project. Rio Tinto has become a symbol of the ecological battle that is much bigger than stopping the work of one company, and it concerns all the environmental problems that citizens face. Secondly, the protest had well-known organizers (including many actors and people from public life) from the very beginning, so the public did not have to ask who was behind the protest, as was the case before. What led to the fulfillment of the demands is the determination of the demonstrators and the organizers not to give up. The limited number of requests also enabled clearer communication with the public, unlike previous protests when requests were constantly added without a clear goal.

Despite the fulfillment of the demands by Aleksandar Vucic, part of the organizers of the environmental movement continued with the protests, but without the blockade of the highways. They believe that the protests must not stop just because two demands have been met, but it is much more important to terminate the contract with the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto.

In the coming period, it remains to be seen how the government will deal with Rio Tinto, but since the parliamentary and presidential elections will be held next April, the government will probably not do anything that would cause additional dissatisfaction among the citizens.

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5 minutes read
  • The environmental movement gained momentum in Serbia this year due to the great dissatisfaction of citizens with the quality of the air they breathe, dissatisfaction with the work of many Chinese factories that pollute the environment, as well as the announcement of new factories that would have dangerous consequences for the environment. The turning point was the project of the Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto to mine lithium in Serbia, which eventually had to be suspended.
  • The hooligans were organized by the authorities to beat up the citizens, while the police withdrew at that moment and did not prevent violent clashes. This is the first time in Serbia that we have a situation where the police do not maintain public order and peace, but withdraw in front of hooligans whose task is to beat and intimidate protesters. It is already known in Serbia that there is a paramilitary wing of the Serbian Progressive Party that does the dirty business, and in return is rewarded with citizens' money, employment, but also permission to carry out various illegal activities without sanctions. Hooligan groups serve government officials to do what the police must not do, which is open violence and intimidation of citizens.
  • The success of this protest lies in the fact that citizens have gathered around one goal, and that is to stop the lithium mining project. Rio Tinto has become a symbol of the ecological battle that is much bigger than stopping the work of one company, and it concerns all the environmental problems that citizens face. Secondly, the protest had well-known organizers (including many actors and people from public life) from the very beginning, so the public did not have to ask who was behind the protest, as was the case before. What led to the fulfillment of the demands is the determination of the demonstrators and the organizers not to give up. The limited number of requests also enabled clearer communication with the public, unlike previous protests when requests were constantly added without a clear goal.
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