Anja Ilić reports on Saturday's road blockades against Rio Tinto's plans to open a new lithium mine in Serbia and analyses the state of the movement
On Saturday 15 January, protesters throughout Serbia organised road blockades for the sixth time since the end of November. They are in opposition to the government’s decision to allow Rio Tinto, a notorious mining company, to open a lithium mine in western Serbia’s Jadar valley. Around a thousand people in Belgrade blocked the E75 highway, along with hundreds organising blockades in other places, including, for the first time since the protests started, a border crossing at Trbušnica in western Serbia.
The Rio Tinto project has been a controversial issue since the autumn of 2020, when the population of the Jadar valley which mostly lives off farming learned that the local government converted their agricultural and forested land into real estate for development. As it was later revealed, Rio Tinto financed the change. However, the company has had a presence in western Serbia since 2004 and the discovery of a new mineral, jadarite.
Having realised jadarite represents a potentially rich source of lithium (and boron), Rio Tinto cunningly set out to win over the residents to the idea of a mine. Its methods are reminiscent of scenes from “Erin Brockovich” (a film which was, in turn, based on real events): offering generous donations to local communities, financing hospitals, schools, sports and social clubs, or, alternatively, resorting to threats of land expropriation when these subtler methods didn’t work.
The mass protests against Rio Tinto erupted in November, precisely at the moment when the government announced changes to the Law on Expropriation. These changes were to enable it to urgently expropriate various forms of property in the public interest. However, the law would have defined public interest in a very dubious way, as any international contract the state signed for projects of “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 move its project forward. Nevertheless, for the time being, the company has announced that it will be putting the mine on hold, presumably as it waits to see how the situation will unfold.
The project itself is a result of a decades-long policy of attracting foreign direct investment, deregulation, and integration into EU and West-controlled institutions. This policy was pursued by the former Democratic Party regime, as much as the current one led by the Serbian Progressive Party. While the former allowed Rio Tinto to carry out geological explorations in the Jadar valley and formally recognised the (geo)strategic importance of lithium extraction, the latter cemented this direction and further deregulated the mining industry. Rio Tinto’s disastrous project is a shared responsibility of successive Serbian governments, all of them pandering to the European Union’s drive to increase its standing on the global lithium and electric cars market.
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 backing it. It lost momentum following the withdrawal of the Law on Expropriation, when “Kreni-promeni”, a civil society organisation behind a massive online petition against the Rio Tinto mine, seen by many as one of the primary organisers of the protests, prematurely declared victory.
This was exacerbated by the Christmas and New Year’s holidays and a low level of coordination between various organisations engaged in mobilising for the movement. As a result, the number of locations where blockades are organised dropped to below a dozen, while the number of people taking part fell from tens of thousands of protesters to a few hundreds or, at most, a couple thousand.
However, if the movement manages to overcome its inner limitations, it may well succeed. Saturday’s blockades were encouraging, as the numbers rose and more radical means were employed (the border crossing blockade). Even so, a lack of a clear strategic perspective remains the key issue, breeding secondary problems, such as bad coordination and high levels of confusion among the protesters. The movement currently contains many different political factions and is cross-class in nature, with low levels of organised working-class presence and liberal and nationalist ideas dominating the narrative.
Nevertheless, socialist ideas, most visibly present through Marks21’s activity within the movement, have been well-received, and some of them widely shared (such as its main slogan “Stop the investors! Save the nature!”). The left can be a factor in the movement’s further development and ultimate success. The best way to do this is to intervene in the movement in such a way that it raises the movement’s awareness of the fact that its enemies – Rio Tinto, the capitalist state, the EU – operate on a thoroughly class-based logic. Such an intervention could transform the movement into a source and training ground for a new generation of militants engaged with insurrectionary socialist politics.
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