Serbia moves to defuse protests over Rio Tinto lithium mine

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Trying to defuse large protests by environmentalists, Serbia’s populist government decided on Wednesday to suspend two key laws that would help mining giant Rio Tinto launch a lithium mine in western Serbia.

For two consecutive weekends, thousands of protesters in Belgrade and other Serbian towns have blocked main roads and bridges to decry the planned lithium mine despite an intimidation campaign launched by authorities against the demonstrators.

The protests are the biggest challenge yet to the increasingly autocratic rule of President Aleksandar Vucic, who has denounced the road blockades as illegal and claimed they are being financed from abroad to destabilise the Balkan country.

Vucic said the suspension of the laws does not represent his “defeat and weakness” or his caving in to pressure from the protesters “who want my head.”

“I apologise to citizens for the terror of irresponsible people,” Vucic said at a press conference, adding that he expects more protests despite the law suspension.

Serbian environmental groups and civil society organisations were angry that Serbian authorities lowered a referendum threshold on major projects in the country and wrote another law that would lead to the swift expropriation of private property near major construction projects. Activists argue this would pave the way for Rio Tinto to quickly launch the lithium mine.

The Serbian government said in a statement on Wednesday that the expropriation law will be withdrawn for further public discussion while the referendum law would be amended.

Protest organisers have also demanded that the government’s financial deal with Rio Tinto be made public. The multinational company has pledged it will put €2.1 billion into the Serbian lithium mine project.

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Throughout its almost 150-year history, Rio Tinto has faced accusations of corruption, environmental degradation and human rights abuses at its excavation sites.

Lithium, which is used in batteries for electric cars, is considered one of the most sought-after metals of the future as the world shifts to more renewable energy sources.

Environmentalists are also upset in general at the Serbian government’s lack of response to rising pollution in the country.

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