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Inside the mining project that could redefine Serbian politics


Citizens rally in Belgrade against the Serbian government’s plans to permit lithium mining in the Jadar Valley, 15 January 2022. Photo: picture alliance / Hans Lucas | Nangka Press

Editor’s note: one day before this article went to print, on 20 January, the Serbian government announced it was revoking Rio Tinto’s mining exploration license, effectively killing the project. A spokesperson for Rio Tinto told reporters the company was “extremely concerned” about the decision.

Gornje Nedeljice, a village in the west of Serbia located only 20 kilometres from the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, turns more and more into a ghost town every day. There is no trace of human presence, nor even of domestic animals — only the sound of the tyres of cars as they roll over the dilapidated village road. In this eerily still atmosphere, cars pass one stripped-down family house after another. The houses are often not only without windows and doors; their roofs, also, seem to have been removed hastily and euphorically, like scalps.

Radomir Klasnić is political scientist and socialy engaged journalist from Belgrade.

No one calls those roofless houses their home anymore. Abandoned courtyards are cordoned off by red and white tape as if they were a scene of a crime. The wars of the 1990s have long come to an end, and a new one is not in sight. Or maybe it is?

In Gornje Nedeljice, multinational mining corporation Rio Tinto plans to build an underground mine worth 2.4 billion dollars for the extraction of lithium, that “white gold” touted as the solution for the reduced consumption of fossil fuels. The controversial project, which carries the potential of ecological disaster because of its problematic mineral extraction technology, has mobilized experts and green activists in Serbia like never before, and thus pushed ecological issues into the very core of the corrupt heart of mainstream politics.

The corporate giant involved, whose list of misdeeds across the globe is longer than a Kardashian family shopping list, has the backing of the Serbian government, as well as numerous Western embassies. Rio Tinto has for some time now been buying out the land in the valley of the Jadar River from local inhabitants for the mine project, since land ownership is a necessary prerequisite for obtaining any permit for resource extraction.

After the topic became overheated in the public, the company — whose consolidated sales revenue in 2020 was only around 20 percent less than the total worth of the entire Serbian economy — increased its financial offers to Serbian peasants, and so the exodus of the locals drastically intensified. Coerced sale and removal from “ancestral homelands” are reminiscent of “humane population resettlement”, a sinister, euphemistic neologism coined by Franjo Tudjman, the infamous Croatian president from the 1990s. His words were malevolently exploited by warmongering politicians of ´former Yugoslavia. Financial “projectiles” and “cash grenades” used by Rio Tinto to break the resistance of the locals led to the state of the aforementioned houses.

During and after the wars of the 1990s, Serbia was still in the process of transitioning into the global capitalist order. In the year 2021, it looks as if this war is still raging — only by different means.

The New Heart of Serbia?

The state, chasing the national sovereignty that was allegedly suffocated in socialist Yugoslavia, now openly delegates that sovereignty to a multinational corporation. It does so despite the fact that the extraction of the jadarite mineral from which the precious lithium is extracted has not been approved yet. Although the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) study has not been completed, the Government has already made many concessions to Rio Tinto.

The public company in charge of roads afforded power of attorney to Rio Tinto to submit documentation required for the building of access roads to routes that would lead to the mine, although these are still pending approval. Additionally, Rio Tinto, and not the public company, has permission to obtain location requirements and prepare the concept design, as well as the project for the construction permit itself.

The multinational company was also given power of attorney to divert the Valjevo-Loznica railway from its original route so that it will not run across the jadarite vein that the company intends to exploit.

President Vučić claims that a referendum will solve everything, but recent changes to the referendum act, as well as the Expropriation Law — according to which citizens’ property can be confiscated within five days if the state deems the property to be of public interest — sparked a general uprising. Blockaded thoroughfares in Belgrade, as well as in other towns and cities across Serbia, sent a wake-up call to the whole country. These involved violent skirmishes with police, and clashes between rebelling citizens and football hooligans under the control of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), who attacked the protesters in Šabac with bats, hammers, and an excavator.

The government announced that the Jadar project aligns with the “national interest” due to the promised prosperity Serbia will obtain from mining the globally-sought-after mineral. However, for many citizens this in fact represents a clear betrayal of national interests. The word “traitor”, which President Aleksandar Vučić has abused for decades to put down his political opponents, could now come back to hit him like a boomerang.

Those critical of the project ask: how can a project that brings with it potential ecological disaster be in any “national interest”? The Jadar project may threaten key water sources, destroying local agriculture, wildlife, and potentially leading to the depopulation of the entire region. How can abdicating sovereignty to a company that is notorious for its disrespect of the environment be counted as protection of national interests — particularly when this company demonstrably represents interests shared by the US, UK, Australia, and Germany,? In what country might the transformation of rural land into an ecological wasteland, a mere “resource” useful only for the extraction of valuable minerals, be claimed as a patriotic act — particularly given that Serbian taxpayers will experience zero benefit from the project?

It is no accident that at the end of October, the SNS sent out local hooligans to disrupt European Parliament member Viola von Cramon’s visit to Gornje Nedeljice with loud claims that she is a Kosovo independence lobbyist. A German politician, Viola von Cramon, visited the village together with representatives from a new Serbian green-left activist alliance. This alliance consists of the Ecological Uprising movement, the Ne Davimo Beograd initiative (known for their opposition to the Dubai-style real estate project in the Serbian capital), and a newly-formed green platform called Action led by Nebojsa Zelenovic, the former mayor of the western Serbian town of Šabac.

The alliance is supported by the European Green Party and is increasingly popular in Serbia. For this reason, SNS portrayed them as traitors by (mis)using Viola von Cramon’s position on Kosovo. It is no coincidence that Mining Minister Zorana Mihajlović — who is often perceived to be an informal spokesperson of Rio Tinto — has criticised the “green opposition” for its alleged betrayal of Kosovo, a thinly-veiled instrumentalization of patriotic sentiment that confuses political issues. In the SNS regime’s spin scenario, fighters for clean air, soil, and survival among the Serbian populace in Western Serbia are represented as traitors, while the state elite are framed as the ostensible protector of the people, bringing economic prosperity fuelled by lithium. Has the valley of Jadar replaced mythologised Kosovo as the new “heart of Serbia”, as the famous nationalistic phrase says: the symbol of Serbia’s national sovereignty and integrity? Could this be the issue that enables the opposition to tear down the iron stabilocracy of Aleksandar Vučić, anointed by the European Union?

“With the arrival of Rio Tinto, land will be confiscated. We will not be able to feed our herd”, says the 50-year-old agriculturalist Predrag Đurić, father of three, from the village Korenita, two kilometres from the projected entry into the mine. Đurić has 10 hectares of land on the site where Rio Tinto plans a landfill. “Some people have already sold. But Rio Tinto stumbled upon a tough nut to crack. Many don’t want to sell. We will defend this even with our bare lives. Many have slipped over on the Drina”, he says, referring to conflicts Serbs have fought in their history.

The Reality of the “Periphery”

After the regime of Slobodan Milošević was toppled in 2000, Serbia immediately opened itself to the “free world”, jumping head-first into the tumult of the global economy. However, promises of progress and welfare did not come to pass. For small countries that are peripheral to the capitalist system, the free-market mantra means two things: an all-encompassing sell-out and legalized exploitation, both of which are carried out with the assistance of those with political and business clout.

The regime, led by parties of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), sold off the majority of state-owned enterprises for a pittance — leaving hundreds of thousands of citizens unemployed — before turning to the exploitation of natural resources. Following this, Aleksandar Vučić, the unchallenged leader of Serbia for the last decade, began to destroy the remaining independent institutions, exerting iron control over the media, and strengthening his “firm-clan-party” organization, which has built a clientelist network of 700,000 members.

Although Vučić climbed to political power by rallying against the corruption and anti-labour politics of the previous regime, it has become apparent that he is an even greater protector of big business, not only in the ideological sense but also due to his anti-democratic efficiency. His authoritarianism and lack of respect for political procedure are ideal when deals are made behind closed doors with foreign investors, and when lobbyists’ desires are exerted onto the rushed schedules of legislative procedures. Government’s

Rio Tinto has conducted exploration in Serbia since 2004, however, it was Vučić’s government that signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Rio Tinto in 2017. After that, a working group was created for the implementation of the Jadar project that includes a number of highly influential individuals. Besides representatives of the company, the government, and a number of public enterprises, the working group includes Mike Shiraev, second secretary to the Australian Embassy in Serbia, and Stephen Ndegwa, director of the World Bank for Serbia. From the multiple documents related to the project that were leaked to the public over the last few months, a number of things are clear: the Serbian government is facing pressure from Western embassies to close a deal with Rio Tinto, meaning that Environmental Impact studies are internally viewed as a mere formality, as is Vučić’s forced announcement that the public will decide about the project on a referendum.

However, Vučić does not leave anything to chance. At the end of November, the opposition-less parliament passed amendments to the Law on Referendum under an emergency procedure. Experts say this will make the manipulation of the ruling voting machinery easier. Also amended is the Law on Expropriation, which will now enable the government to utilize the emergency procedure and confiscate property from citizens under the guise of enabling projects of quasi-national importance — such as investment undertakings of companies like Rio Tinto.

However, following people’s protests and heavy road blockades for two consecutive weekends, Vučić backed down, withdrawing the laws or amending them as advised by experts linked with the protest movement. It was one of the rare moments that the Serbian President openly backed down in response to grassroots pressure, inadvertently admitting wrongdoing. But both he and environmental protesters are aware that this is just one battle in a long war ahead.

The West Always Wants the Best

Rio Tinto has always enjoyed strong political support in the countries of its shareholders. The UK has been pushing the Jadar project for years; the special envoy of the US for the Balkans, Matthew Palmer, has already intimated to the opposition not to tear down the government on this issue. Bechtel, a key US construction company known for developing sites previously occupied by the US army, is already working on the project, while Germany has also jumped on the lithium bandwagon.

“If the whole world is interested, we are also interested. That is clear. Serbia really has something valuable … It is not just about German interests, it is an issue which member states of the EU will tackle, since preserving the environment in Europe is a really important question”, ex-chancellor Angela Merkel stated after meeting with Vučić in September this year during her farewell tour of the Balkans.

And indeed, Serbia has something valuable. However, so does Germany, which has one of the world’s largest lithium deposits in the southwestern valley of the upper Rhine. Extraction of lithium from thermal water sources in Germany is less polluting than its exploitation and refinement in Serbia is predicted to be, but it is questionable if even these sources will be exploited, since the local German population, unlike in Serbia, has some say in the matter, experts suggest. The German interest here is by no means incidental. In a document that the EU mission in Serbia forwarded to the Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and which was published by the investigative portal BIRN, it is stated that Rio Tinto has already established contact with three German automotive companies — the Daimler Group, Volkswagen, and BMW.

The EU imports almost all the lithium it consumes, but it has an ambitious plan to turn that process around for economic as well as geopolitical reasons. The European Commission estimates that by 2030, the demand for lithium will have increased eighteenfold. Vice-president of the EC Maroš Šefčovič stated in March that Europe’s goal is to become the second-largest region in the world for the production of lithium-ion batteries by 2025, right behind China.

A further leaked document — this one from the EC’s Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs — states that the EU directly supports the investment of Rio Tinto and that the Environmental Impact Assessment study will be approved in the first quarter of 2022. It also adds that the EC is conducting talks with the Serbian government about possibilities for the development of a strategic partnership in the production of raw materials and batteries. This would be dependent on Serbian participation in the process of accession to the EU, bringing with it the real possibility of integration with European production chains.

Director of Rio Tinto Marnie Finlayson recently declared that the Jadar project has the potential to produce 58,000 tonnes per year of lithium carbonate for the production of batteries. This means that the project stands to be the largest source of lithium in Europe for the next 15 years at least. This was stated in the context of a signed memorandum of cooperation with Inobat, a battery producer with a research and development centre and pilot plant in Slovakia that is currently planning to build several battery factories, including one in Serbia.

However, where exactly do persistent claims that Serbia is the resource base of the EU and the heart of the European production industry come from? Although it is repeatedly claimed that Serbia possesses the largest reserves of lithium in Europe, many suggest this is not quite true. Larger reserves can be found in Germany and the Czech Republic, as well as significant deposits in France, Finland, Austria, Spain, and Portugal. Moreover, the extraction of lithium from the mineral jadarite has never been performed, nor has the technology that would enable extraction been tried and tested.

What is really at stake here is not new: in outsourcing dirty production to the European periphery, profits are maximized in the centre, with minimal ecological consequences for domestic political ratings. The pipe dreams of Serbian liberal elites of becoming a part of the “civilised western world” have already long resembled a feverish nightmare. From its restless delirium, the realization has finally dawned that Serbia is indeed a part of that world, but the place intended for the former Yugoslav country is the table in the corner where only leftovers are served. Calls for so-called “European values” are just the jam used to sweeten the bitter pill all over again: rhetoric from self-serving intellectuals in peripheral countries subjected to big business takeover attempts.

“German enterprises are increasingly active, and their investments since 2000 have surpassed 3.5 billion euro. German enterprises have created tens of thousands of jobs in Serbia. Serbia is becoming increasingly attractive for foreign investors, especially in the automotive industry, and the key of the development of Serbian economy has been confirmed in the White Book of the Council of Foreign Investors”, German ambassador Thomas Schieb recently statedafter attending — alongside Vučić — the opening of a factory producing exhaust systems for German company BAS Boysen Abgassysteme, which he called the symbol of “extraordinary economic relations between the two countries”.

It is crystal-clear to European diplomats that Vučić’s regime reproduces itself through farcical elections which can only be viewed as a festival of competitive authoritarianism. Yet in propping up lithium mining here, the EU has essentially tethered itself to two of the most unpopular and unjust projects in Serbia. While the former Information Minister from Milosevic’s government is currently, as president, destroying fragile democratic structures in a country still recovering from the wars of the nineties, the Rio Tinto project can forever devastate that country in which — besides the land and water — there is little else left.

The Consequences (And Who Profits from Them)

More than 4,000 people live in the valley of the Jadar River. The Jadar River is part of a watershed system, including groundwater that is key to the water supply of the broader surrounding area, a region with more than 140 protected plant and animal species, and 50 localities with cultural-historical heritage.

For that reason, Serbian environmental experts are highly critical of Rio Tinto’s plan — excluding those on the company’s payroll. The mining giant has long been at work hiring experts from several authoritative faculties in Serbia, including the Faculty of Mining and Geology, the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, and the Faculty of Civil Engineering.

Acting Dean of the Faculty of Forestry of the University of Belgrade Ratko Ristić claims that the “very invasive effect” of the mine will be made palpable on 1,290 hectares of space. This includes the complete repurposing of 203 hectares of forest and 316 hectares of agricultural land, destroying a region which is almost entirely dependent on agriculture. Aside from this, the mining and refinement activities of this so-called “green” project will require around 7,000 tonnes of organic carbonates. A significant part of Serbia will be littered with landfill — in which large amounts of arsenic, nickel, cadmium, and lead will accumulate.

The plan stipulates the use of over 110 tonnes of explosives per month, 20,000 cubic metres of water per day, 300,000 tonnes of sulphuric acid per year, and 25,000 cubic metres of wastewater per day. This will run into the Jadar or tributaries of the Drina River, warns Zvezdan Kalmar from the Center for Ecology and Sustainable Development (CEKOR).

The company denies any serious dangers, but at the time of writing, no comprehensive study on the effect on the environment has been carried out. However, an initial study for the replanning of Loznica — carried out by the Ministry for Construction Rio Tinto’s request — already contains serious warnings. Among other things, the study warns of potential degradation of the quality of water, the “degradation of natural habitat”, effects on migratory routes, “fragmentation of the population”, and accumulation of various types of waste. It also emphasizes chemical changes in the soil that could lead to sterility in mammals.

Since lithium has not yet been industrially extracted from jadarite, the effects of the refinement process are as yet unknown. Above and beyond this, Rio Tinto has zero track record with lithium mining, and whose general reputation is such that the average responsible person would hesitate to task it with a picnic. Initial trials have already caused some damage to citizens. Five locals from the area surrounding Loznica received compensation from Rio Tinto after underground waters spilled onto their crops during exploratory works. The laboratory report showed that the leaked water contained unusually high concentrations of boron, sodium, and other chemical elements. The company admitted to having caused the leakage, but they claimed it only affected a “small amount” of machinery, paying 2,000 euro in reparations to the owners.

Repolarizing the Polity

At the heart of the matter lies a further question: does Serbia profit from yet another foreign corporation exploiting the country’s natural resources? What will citizens see of the profits generated from this exploitation? According to current estimates, in the project’s initial decade, Rio Tinto will earn 4 billion euro, while the state will receive only 300 million. The project’s opponents point out that the agricultural production in that region alone is capable, with small investment, of bringing more than 80 million euro per year.

On the other hand, it has been warned that lithium extraction by no means represents a secure investment, as industry increasingly prefers sodium-ionic batteries and graphene batteries when it comes to electric vehicles. It has been suggested that the newest generation of sodium-ionic batteries performs at the required level, but with smaller production costs. This is why the largest global producer of batteries for electric vehicles and Tesla supplier CATL has announced that they will transition to sodium-ion batteries only from 2023.

Despite pressures from the world of diplomacy and big business, Vučić is unlikely to make a move before upcoming elections, which are scheduled for April 2022. In a state in which opposition parties are at one another’s throats, and citizens are highly distrustful of all politicians, environmental questions are not only the unifying supra-ideological but also supra-national(istic) factor. Rio Tinto is now the notorious corporate poster boy, with a mobilizing effect so strong that it may be capable of assailing even the concrete-reinforced regime of the Serbian Progressive Party.

If in previous times, Serbian politicians have fallen on the issue of resolving the status of Kosovo and Metohija, today, patriotism is measured in terms of support of lithium mining in Western Serbia by an Anglo-Australian company that, among other crimes, supplied Hitler’s war machinery under the patronage of Francisco Franco.

It appears that Serbia finally has a chance to break the vicious cycle caused by the post-war transition, which saw the country divided between liberals and nationalists. This divide has, for three decades, masked a heated class war that produces poverty, destroys natural resources, and pushes the most educated to leave the country. Unlike the Kosovo issue, the ecological issue has the potential to politically emancipate. It pushes people to reconsider their priorities — and without this basis, all questions relating to national identity are superfluous.

When the issues of clean water, land, and air are on the agenda — together with the equal distribution of public resources belonging to all Serbian citizens, and not to the more or less smooth-talking political oligarchy — then questions relating to class are also not far away. The issue of class brings with it the right to dignified working conditions, union organization, and the protection of national interests from assault by great powers. The fact that ecology is the missing piece in the mosaic of change is best attested by the aggressive response of the Serbian Progressive Party to the eco-activists, because if anyone can sense danger, it is Aleksandar Vučić, a person (over)obsessed with public opinion polls.

That the popular dichotomy of “yellow thieving-radicalist throng” (žuti lopovi-radikalska stoka) is also on its deathbed, can be discerned from the many months of shameless attacks launched by the “old opposition”, led by the People’s Party, on Aleksandar Jovanović Ćuta, leader of Ecological Uprising. Protective of their monopoly of the Serbian political opposition, the remains of the Democratic Party (DS) have shamelessly and relentlessly attacked the emergent third option, the new coalition formed by Ecological Uprising, the Ne Davimo Beograd movement, and Nebojša Zelenović’s party — the only DS-splinter that has preserved some measure of respect among voters. It seems that after ten years of Vučić’s rule, in which the half-dead remnants of the DOS regime failed to regroup, Serbia finally has a chance to create a respectable political alternative.

In this sense, the German Greens should consider who they will send next time as support to this so-called green-left coalition. If the valley of Jadar is the new Kosovo, and therefore the new heart of Serbia, then as a vocal supporter of independent Kosovo, Viola von Cramon could do well to sit out the next match on the bench. Her appearance will inevitably lead to a penalty for the spin-machinery of the regime. That is, if the new German government wishes post-war Serbia well. Or perhaps it desires that wonderful Serbian lithium after all?