Blockages at the crossroads: can the movement in Serbia stop Rio Tinto?

Anja Ilić reports on Saturday’s roadblocks against Rio Tinto’s plans to open a new lithium mine in Serbia and analyzes the state of the movement

On Saturday January 15, protesters across Serbia staged roadblocks for the sixth time since late November. They oppose the government’s decision to allow Rio Tinto, a notorious mining company, to open a lithium mine in the Jadar Valley in western Serbia. About a thousand people in Belgrade blocked the E75 highway, while hundreds organized blockades in other places, including, for the first time since the protests began, at a border crossing in Trbušnica, in the western Serbia.

The Rio Tinto project has been controversial since the fall of 2020, when the population of the Jadar Valley, who live mainly from agriculture learned that the local government has converted their agricultural and forest land into real estate for development. As later revealed, Rio Tinto funded the change. However, the company has been present in western Serbia since 2004 and the discovery of a new mineral, jadarite.

Realizing that jadarite represents a potentially rich source of lithium (and boron), Rio Tinto shrewdly set out to win people over to the idea of ​​a mine. His methods are reminiscent of scenes from “Erin Brockovich” (a film which was, in turn, based on real events): offering generous donations to local communities, funding hospitals, schools, sports and social clubs, or , alternatively, resorting to threats of land expropriation when these more subtle methods have not worked.

Mass protests against Rio Tinto erupted in November, precisely when the government announced changes to the expropriation law. These changes were to enable him to expropriate various forms of property on an emergency basis in the public interest. However, the law would have defined public interest in a very dubious way, as any international contract signed by the state for projects “in the national interest” would fall under the category.

Although public opposition, including within the ranks of the ruling party and its electorate, has forced the government to abandon the idea of ​​changing the law, Rio Tinto still has legal means to push its plan forward. However, for the time being, the company has announcement that he will put the mine on hold, presumably waiting to see how the situation develops.

The project itself is the result of a decades-long policy of attracting foreign direct investment, deregulation and integration into EU and Western institutions. This policy was continued by the former Democratic Party regime, as well as the current one led by the Serbian Progressive Party. While the former allowed Rio Tinto to conduct geological exploration in the Jadar Valley and formally recognized the (geo)strategic importance of lithium mining, the latter cemented this direction and further deregulated the industry. mining. Rio Tinto’s disastrous project is a shared responsibility of successive Serbian governments, all of which bow to the European Union’s desire to increase its position in the world market for lithium and electric cars.

It remains to be seen whether the mass movement against Rio Tinto’s mining operations in Serbia will succeed in defeating the company and the government that supports it. It lost momentum following the withdrawal of the law on expropriation, when “Kreni-promeni”, a civil society organization at the origin of a online petition against the Rio Tinto mine, seen by many as one of the main organizers of the protests, declared victory prematurely.

This situation was exacerbated by the Christmas and New Year holidays and a low level of coordination between the various organizations engaged in mobilizing for the movement. As a result, the number of places where blockades are organized has fallen to less than a dozen, while the number of people taking part has fallen from tens of thousands of demonstrators to a few hundred or, at most, a few thousand.

However, if the movement manages to overcome its internal limitations, it may well succeed. Saturday’s blockages were encouraging, as the numbers increased and more drastic means were employed (blocking of border crossings). Even so, the lack of a clear strategic perspective remains the key issue, generating secondary issues, such as poor coordination and a high level of confusion among protesters. The movement currently contains many different political factions and is cross-class in nature, with low levels of organized working class presence and liberal and nationalist ideas dominating the narrative.

Nevertheless, socialist ideas, more visibly present through Notes21within the movement, have been well received, and some of them widely shared (such as its main slogan “Stop investors! Save nature!”). The left may be a factor in the further development of the movement and its ultimate success. The best way to do this is to intervene in the movement in such a way that it sensitizes it to the fact that its enemies – Rio Tinto, the capitalist state, the EU – operate according to a fundamentally class logic. Such an intervention could transform the movement into a source and training ground for a new generation of militants committed to insurrectionary socialist politics.

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