About 2,000 protesters rallied in Belgrade against the government’s plans to adopt laws on expropriation and referendums that environmentalists say are designed to benefit foreign mining companies.
The protesters rallied on November 24 in front of the office of President Aleksandar Vucic and later marched through central Belgrade, chanting “We will not give away Serbia” and blowing whistles and trumpets.
The draft law on expropriation is to be debated in the coming days in parliament, which is dominated by parties allied to Vucic.
The law would allow for expedited expropriations of private property if it is considered to be in the public interest. The draft law on referendums would lower turnout requirements for such votes.
Opponents say the expropriation law will be used to advance mining projects that damage the environment, including China’s Zijin copper mine and Rio Tinto’s plans for a $2.4 billion lithium mine in western Serbia.
London-based Rio Tinto, the world’s second-largest metals and mining company, is studying possible development of a lithium mine in Serbia, believed to be one of the largest in Europe.
The mine has the potential to generate significant export revenue and jobs for Serbia, especially if the country pursues plans to refine it locally and develop lithium battery plants.
Demand for lithium battery-powered electric cars is expected to surge in the coming years as the United States, Europe, and China seek to cut carbon emissions.
Rio Tinto says it would respect laws and environmental standards, but ecology groups worry dirty lithium mining will damage the environment.
In some areas where mining and infrastructure projects are planned, owners have refused to sell their property and went to court, demanding higher compensation in legal proceedings that last for months.
“Citizens will no longer have the opportunity to determine fair compensation in court, because now literally every project that comes to the government’s mind is cited as a reason for expropriation,” Bozo Prelevic, a lawyer and member of an association gathering intellectuals, told protesters.
Vucic again denied on November 24 that the expropriation law was designed to enable Rio Tinto to take control of the land needed for the mine. He said at a press conference that the expropriation law was needed to speed up infrastructure projects.
Vucic previously promised a referendum would be held on the Rio Tinto lithium project.