Thousands of protesters blocked bridges and major roads over the weekend in December, expressing their dissatisfaction with Rio Tinto’s opening of a lithium mine. They fear additional pollution in the Gadar Valley in western Serbia, which already suffers from poor air quality.
In addition, the demonstrators demanded that the government disclose the details of the deal it made with Rio Tinto. The company planned to invest 2.1 billion euros in the project. Lithium is currently one of the most sought-after raw materials on Earth, being used, among other things, for batteries for electric cars and smartphones.
So it seems that the big demonstrations have paid off. “We meet the demands of the environmental protests and end Rio Tinto in Serbia,” Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said in a televised address.
But critics of the Serbian government say the withdrawal is mainly due to fears of losing the upcoming elections, which will be held on April 3. The right-wing Serbian government says contracts have already been signed with Rio Tinto by the previous pro-Western government. According to the critical Serbian media, this is not true and the most important agreements were signed under the leadership of the hard-right Prime Minister Brnabic and President Aleksandar Vucic.
Brnabic said he was not afraid of the reaction of Rio Tinto, which announced after Serbia’s announcement that it was very disappointed and would investigate whether revocation of licenses was legally possible. The lithium mine in the Gadar Valley is supposed to become the most productive in Europe, according to Reuters, producing 58 thousand tons of lithium carbonate annually.
Earlier this month, Brnabic already announced that the project would be postponed at least until the elections. It remains unclear how lithium mining in Serbia should continue after the elections. According to the Associated Press, the withdrawal of permits may be due to the fact that Serbia prefers awarding the lithium mine to China over the award of the British-Australian company Rio Tinto.
The Balkan country is still officially in the process of belonging to the European Union, but under President Vucic it has not hidden the close relations that it maintains with China. In recent years, China has invested tens of billions in factories, roads and railways in the Balkans.
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