For our yearly report of 2021, one of our partners wrote this text on the political situation in Serbia. Her hopes for the general elections didn’t come true, making her text more relevant than ever.
(Text: Jasmina Borić) We started 2021 under the same autocratic, thieving and corrupt regime that has existed since 2012, when the Serbian Progressive Party (editor’s note: this party belongs to the right-wing conservative, nationalist spectrum) led by Aleksandar Vucic came to power. Nevertheless, the political situation in Serbia in 2021 is very different from the previous year. The government came into power promising to fight corruption, nepotism and embezzlement and to provide better salaries and pensions – in short, a better life for all – but has failed to deliver on any of these promises. Corruption and waste of public funds have instead increased. Moreover, mechanisms that at least partially controlled the government have been suspended. According to what we as citizens learn from the part of the media which is not yet controlled by the government, the regime lives on high foreign loans, which can drive the country into a debt trap. In Serbia, there are two realities: on the one hand, the reality of average citizens who can barely live on their salaries. On the other hand, the “reality“ that is presented to us on television by the media loyal to the regime: the standard of living, the air, the water, the clean environment, everything is just great. Most people only see this picture, because they don’t have the money to pay for cable TV or internet connections. Especially the old people with their very low pensions feel this way. And it is precisely these pensioners that the government’s propaganda is targeting, as they have been its most loyal voters up to now.
But “nothing lasts forever”, as the saying goes, and we hope that this is also true for this regime. The thick walls that governments surround themselves with eventually begin to crumble, and I think in Serbia the events of last fall showed the first cracks in that wall.
In recent years, environmental issues have become more and more present in public consciousness: they are now seriously discussed and experts present frightening data about environmental degradation, polluted water and the polluted air we breathe, especially in winter.
The long series of protests started with the establishment of small hydroelectric power plants on various rivers in Serbia to produce “clean energy”. But the sad truth was that these mini power plants were destroying natural life in all streams and rivers.
One of the poorest parts of Serbia, where the mainly elderly population lives off agriculture, was particularly affected. This area in the southeast includes a large part of the Stara Planina mountains. The mini power plants were built almost secretly all over Serbia, we heard rumors that this or that small river disappeared, but it was hardly reported. This changed abruptly when such power plants were to be built in the Balkan Mountains. To everyone’s surprise, the older inhabitants stood up and began to protest. In the beginning, they met for demonstrations where people only shouted slogans, but in time something like a “guerrilla war” developed. Grandfathers and grandmothers grabbed shovels, axes, and posts; they destroyed pipes, blocked roads, and stalled construction. They inspired the rest of society; from their group today come well-known spokesmen for the Serbian environmental movement, such as Aleksandar Jovanovic Cuta. He is one of the founders of the “Environmental Uprising Movement” and is now present at every protest that revolves around environmental issues. The Environmental Uprising Movement is not affiliated with political parties, one reason for its popularity. Since the rise of Cuta, who appears very competent in public, environmental issues are on the agenda everywhere: in Vojvodina, 70% of drinking water is heavily polluted, big cities are suffocating in garbage, air pollution is one of the highest in the world, most sewage runs into rivers untreated. Very little clean energy is produced in Serbia, the population uses coal of the worst quality for heating, which destroys the climate – a vicious circle of poverty and pollution.
In this tense situation, it suddenly became known that the Australian-British company Rio Tinto was searching for lithium reserves in Serbia and had found large quantities of mineable ore. Environmental activists provided information about the poisoned and largely destroyed landscapes left behind wherever the corporation had mined ore. The government defended Rio Tinto as the corporation that would bring millions to the country.
The area where Rio Tinto planned to build its mine is one of the country’s most fertile areas near the Drina River. A number of environmental organizations publicly opposed potential mining projects and further test drilling in the area. The government hardly responded and Rio Tinto launched a campaign to win over the Serbian population.
It is clear to all of us that there are politicians in the government who receive money from Rio Tinto and therefore turn a deaf ear and a blind eye. The environmental movement warned that the government was thinking about changing laws to benefit Rio Tinto and make everything seem legal and democratic. Slowly, word leaked that Rio Tinto was moving to buy land to begin mining after the samples were analyzed. The government supported these plans by building a road to the future mine. It laid power lines and changed local zoning plans to allow for the mine. As a result, more and more people began to fight against these plans and against Rio Tinto as a whole. After a large protest, President Vucic announced that a referendum would decide on the mine. (…)
Almost at the same time, the government, in a cloak-and-dagger operation, changed the law that sets the conditions for referendums. Although the period for collecting the 30,000 signatures needed for a referendum was extended from previously almost impossible seven days to three months, all signatures must now be notarized. Each notarization costs three euros, and in many places, there is no authority to notarize signatures at all. The conditions for the implementation of a referendum have thus been made extremely difficult and Savo Manojlovic, director of the online platform for petitions “GoChange“, on which many signatures had already been collected, criticized that the new law was explicitly tailored to the needs of Rio Tinto. (…)
At the same time, the parliament passed a law on expropriation. It allows the government to declare private property as “of public interest” and expropriate it in emergencies. Meanwhile, it is pretty clear that this law was brought in for Rio Tinto. The corporation was only able to buy 140 of the 600 hectares needed for the mine because some people did not want to sell their land at any price. The new law would allow this land to be expropriated and given to the corporation.
This was the signal for the population to take to the streets to prevent this law. In the first few weeks, they blocked traffic for an hour and asked Vucic not to sign the legislative proposal that had already been passed by parliament, so that it would not become law.
I think Vucic and the Serbian Progressive Party were surprised by the scale of the protests. When asked by journalists whether he had signed the law, he evasively replied at the time, “Not yet, new legal opinions would be obtained, we would see, probably in November.” The blockades continued and many more people came than we initially expected. Even the highway was blocked for two hours. The government was actually afraid of the people and Vucic surprised us by saying that there were some formal mistakes found in the law, which is why the government would accept the demands of the protestors: The expropriation law would be withdrawn and all the protestors‘ demands concerning the referendum law would be met.
Afterwards, “GoChange” declared that they would submit a referendum to the parliament for a vote that would prohibit further lithium mining.
For now, there is calm, perhaps the calm before the storm. Parliamentary elections will be held on April 3, 2022. The environmental protests will continue, they will have a decisive impact on the political situation.
We expect profound political changes and hope they will bring us (…) liberation from a regime that has been stifling us for ten years.