Mining Companies and the EU Want Serbia’s Lithium

In December, mass protests halted the mining company Rio Tinto’s plan to construct a lithium mine in Serbia, defeating the country’s right-wing government and the EU. The Left needs to fight for an alternative to environmentally destructive neoliberalism.

Serbian protesters gather to block a highway in Belgrade in December 2021 to protest against the Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto's plan to open a lithium mine in the country. (OLIVER BUNIC/AFP via Getty Images)

On December 16, the Guardian reported that large-scale protests had halted the Anglo-Australian mining conglomerate Rio Tinto’s plan to construct a $2.4 billion lithium mine in Serbia’s Jadar Valley. Opponents of the government also managed to force Belgrade to back down on its plans to pass two controversial pieces of government legislation. The environmental movement thwarted plans for a law that would have made it easier for the state to confiscate private land and hand it over to investors, as well as legislation making referenda against unpopular government initiatives more difficult to win.

With presidential, parliamentary, and local elections all scheduled to take place on April 3, the prospect of escalating environmental protests, which blocked icy highways and bridges over the winter, threatens to become a major nuisance for President Aleksandar Vučić. Despite the protests, the right-wing Serbian Progressive Party, which Vučić heads, still holds a commanding lead in national opinion polls, with the support of more than 50 percent of voters. At the local level, including the capital, where the governing coalition is made up of the Progressive and Socialist parties, this lead is much thinner.

Temporarily giving in to the demands of the environmental protestors was a logical move. Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabić have both since explicitly stated that their government does not intend to halt the Rio Tinto project. The fact that there is still great strength of feeling around Rio Tinto makes this move a risky one.

A petition that opponents of the mine launched around a year ago has collected over 292,000 signatures. The primary concerns of its signatories are that the project would pollute water supplies for millions and endanger both local biodiversity and livelihoods. With such strong opposition, why are Serbian officials so determined to push ahead?

Lithium and the New Cold War

Serbia’s path to European integration has been made difficult by the wars that broke up the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Despite having built a close relationship with the European Union, Serbia’s disagreement with the bloc over the independence of Kosovo, which broke with its Balkan neighbor in 2008, remains a sticking point.

During the height of the protests, speculation became rife in Serbia that Vučić might drop Rio Tinto for an alternative company. Of the two most prominent names being mentioned, one was a Chinese firm.

Belgrade knows that its hand is strengthened by having more cards to play economically and geopolitically in its dealings with the EU. Consequently, the threat that Serbia could turn to China would certainly have had alarm bells ringing in Brussels.

The EU is desperate to gain lithium supplies, as the mineral is an essential component of the batteries of electric vehicles and therefore a key ingredient in the supposedly green transition from fossil fuels. Currently, the EU is reliant on imports, largely from Chile, the United States, and Russia. The bloc would prefer to integrate raw material and battery value chains closer to home so as to leave producers of electric vehicles less vulnerable in geopolitical terms. These anxieties are, of course, exacerbated by the “new cold war” between the West and China.

In fact, in the field of electric vehicles, the EU and United States are playing a game of catch-up with China, which moved into the field earlier, where it has established a strong presence. According to BloombergNEF’s 2020 lithium-ion battery supply chain ranking, “China’s success results from its large domestic battery demand, 72GWh, and control of 80% of the world’s raw material refining, 77% of the world’s cell capacity and 60% of the world’s component manufacturing.”

The EU is therefore actively seeking as many European sources of lithium as it can find. It is in fact encouraging Serbia to mine its lithium and appears to approve of the Rio Tinto project. The European Commission spokeswoman Ana Pisonero reiterated, on December 3, the EU’s view stating that

the Jadar project is a very good opportunity for the socio-economic development of Serbia provided it respects the highest environmental standards. The EU also supports Serbia in its efforts to attract EU partners and investments in view of creating a sustainable, vertically integrated critical raw materials and battery value chains.

Pisonero’s references to environmental standards are little more than a sop to public opinion. The EU has in fact shown open disregard for the Serbian government’s poor environmental record, which fails to meet the standards set by the bloc’s own guidelines.

This is in keeping with a pattern of turning a blind eye to ecologically destructive practices when doing otherwise would threaten the EU’s energy needs. Chile remains the bloc’s main supplier of lithium, despite the local mining industry polluting fresh water supplies and endangering indigenous communities in the Latin American nation.

Although the EU claims its domestic lithium production will be cleaner, there is room for doubt. A recent public hearing in the European Parliament revealed several instances where existing waste-dam maintenance and planning were dangerously inadequate in current member states. Overall, there are major concerns about the impact of lithium mining on local biodiversity, water supplies, farming, and livelihoods.

From the New Cold War to the Democratic Deficit

We should not expect improved environmental and living standards to be the end result of Serbia’s continued integration with the EU. Speaking to the Financial Times, Savo Manojlović, leader of Kreni-Promeni (Go, Change), a major group behind the protests against Rio Tinto, remarked that “the mine will benefit Serbians like diamonds benefited the Congolese.”

The results of Serbia’s attempt to diversify its sources of foreign direct investment in order to allow it greater space for foreign policy maneuvering have thus far been questionable. The Balkan nation’s frequent tilts eastward to win concessions from the United States and EU have led it into the arms of countries whose domestic policies are often looked upon unfavorably by the West. Russia has become a major energy and arms player in the country. So too has China, which sees Serbia as its main investment site in the Western Balkans. Even the United Arab Emirates has invested significant sums.

But this foreign direct investment model is ultimately debt-driven, and has brought major profits for the few and much misery for the many. The social movement led by Ne da(vi)mo Beograd (Don’t Let Belgrade D(r)own, or NDB), emerged in 2015–16 in response to the Abu Dhabi–based company Eagle Hill’s redevelopment of the Belgrade Waterfront.

In November 2021, there was a public outcry when Serbian media exposed the inhumane treatment of hundreds of Vietnamese workers at the Chinese-owned tire factory Linglong in Zrenjanin. The conditions of these workers were not dissimilar to those endured by their Serbian counterparts. This is hardly surprising, given that the Balkan nation has inequality levels much higher than most European states.

Serbia is pursuing a development strategy not uncommon among states located at the peripheries of global capitalism. It entails empowering the local capitalists, disempowering potential systemic challengers, and taking as many decisions out of the democratic sphere as possible. By adhering to the path of EU integration, Serbia has effectively taken major policymaking decisions out of the hands of the population, and often out of the hands of elected politicians.

A muscular and unaccountable state has arisen to deal preemptively with explosions of anger and to make sustained opposition difficult. This state has been rewarded with seven consecutive years of growth in foreign direct investment, and closer ties with an EU that maintains a general disinterest in the progressive hollowing out of democratic institutions, a process that has reached its apogee in recent years under Vučić.

The Failure of Liberal Opposition and the Rise of the Greens

The partial success of the recent round of mass protests against Rio Tinto is proof that attempting to challenge the ruling coalition’s grip on power is not futile. Nonetheless, it is also true that there have been previous rounds of protests since the Serbian Progressive Party’s came to power in 2012, and none has won a decisive victory.

Part of the reason for the failure of many past mobilizations is the prevalence of deeply compromised leadership figures and organizations from past governments within opposition movements. The fact that Dragan Djilas, the former Belgrade mayor and leader of the Democratic Party, the mainstay of the democratic opposition of Serbia that toppled Slobodan Milošević, remains a key figure in the United Opposition is a case in point.

A wealthy businessman, Djilas is tainted by his association with the failures of the post-Milošević era, which include a tsunami of privatization. Many ordinary Serbs still view this as a time when some got filthy rich while the country was brought to its knees. The fact that the first contracts that brought Rio Tinto to Serbia were signed in 2004, when many in the current opposition were in government, compounds the sense that the mainstream opposition does not represent a significantly different set of policies to those of the government.

Now, however, there are signs that protest movements are trying to articulate a political alternative to the views put forward by the right-wing ruling bloc and the liberal opposition. The latter is made up largely of parties that ruled Serbia in the 2000s — Serbia’s equivalent to what Tariq Ali has called the “extreme center.”

The demonstrations against the Belgrade Waterfront in 2016, although limited in scope, opened up the political discourse to demands that went beyond liberal concerns. NDB were, however, unable to translate popular anger into political power. NDB’s electoral result in Belgrade’s 2018 municipal elections showed that, at the time, it had gained only limited support beyond the affluent city center.

Similar dynamics have emerged in the environmental protests leading up to the November and December 2021 anti–Rio Tinto movement. New networks have arisen, like Ekološki ustanak (Ecological Uprising), which brought together forty-five local organizations to start protests in April 2021, and placed great faith in grassroots organizing. Similarly, in October, six associations, from areas directly threatened by the mining of lithium, formed the Savez ekoloških organizacija Srbije (The Union of Ecological Organizations of Serbia).

By the end of the year, the protests developed a more popular and spontaneous character than those that took place in Belgrade in 2016. The movement had no obvious leadership, and a number of organizations began to diverge in their tactics after the government withdrew the controversial laws in December.

Ekološki ustanak argued for continuation of protests until the Rio Tinto project was officially shelved, but Kreni-Promeni and NDB declared victory. While these organizations have gone on to organize subsequent protests together, the collective sense seems to be that the movement is broader than any one organization.

Nevertheless, it is clear that some of these organizations will continue to work with others as part of a new “green coalition,” uniting local environmental and liberal groups to run for office. This coalition looks likely to be the third-largest force in Serbian parliament, with 7 percent of the national vote and an even more significant presence in several municipalities. It may also run a presidential candidate.

The NDB is a key driver of this green realignment on the Serbian political scene. The NDB clearly hopes to replicate the success of Možemo! (We can!), a green municipal movement that first stood as Zagreb je naš! (Zagreb is ours!) in 2017 and won the local elections in Zagreb, the capital of neighboring Croatia, in the summer of 2021. Some sections of Serbia’s left have gotten behind the new green politics, and there is much talk of “one foot in activism, and the other in electoral politics.”

Results and Prospects

Yet parties with deeper roots in social movements elsewhere, from Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party in Brazil to Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza in Greece, have foundered on similar slogans. Moreover, many of the forces involved in the rising green political coalition in Serbia are deeply committed to EU integration and are friendly with the European Greens.

A recent statement by two of the green coalition members, Zajedno za Srbiju (Together for Serbia) and Akcija, issued to welcome the decision of the Ekološki ustanak to participate in the elections together with the coalition, said that they would fight together for a “Serbia in Europe, not for a Serbia the garbage dump of Europe.”

Tellingly, Zajedno za Srbiju is led by a former member of the Democratic Party and mayor of the western city of Šabac, Nebojša Zelenović. While the rise of green politics and talk of “green revolution” opens spaces for left ideas that can challenge neoliberalism, it remains highly unlikely that most of the forces involved in the green coalition have worked out an explicitly left-wing agenda.

Alongside greens, anti-capitalist forces have also been participating in the protest movements of the last few years, though their success has been modest. They were successful for a time in putting social demands at the forefront of the April 2017 protests, “Against the Dictatorship.” During the “One in Five Million” protest movement in 2019 against regime violence, they were even able to organize a visible left bloc with its own slogans and demands.

This included the Social Democratic Union (which initiated the Party of the Radical Left), Marks21 (Marx21) and Marksistička organizacija Crveni (Marxist Organization Reds). Despite the radicalism of its program, the anti-capitalist movement was limited in its scope. As sociologists Jelena Pešić and Jelisaveta Petrović have shown, the middle-class leadership of the protests failed to attract the support of the popular classes, leaving the left bloc relatively isolated and often badly misrepresented in regime and liberal media alike. A similar fate awaited the left intervention in the 2020 protests, which police forcefully subdued.

For a time, the new Party of the Radical Left seemed like a project that could help anti-capitalist forces break out of isolation. Riven with factional infighting and internally focused, the party proved stillborn, and splintered in three directions. The path out of political obscurity is surely to be found in the return to intervening visibly in mass movements, with clear class-focused demands that can resonate within and beyond the environmental movements.

Visible throughout the protests and in almost all of the media coverage of the events was a slogan from one of Marks21’s banners. Cutting through the miasma of left-wing discourse, it made two clear demands: the government should put a “Stop to investors! Let’s save nature!” The fact that these words became so prominent during the height of the protests shows that these left-wing slogans do have a potential audience.

In the short term, the Left will need to work in nonsectarian ways with all those who wish to continue mass protests against Rio Tinto while sending the message that the fate of the natural wealth of the country should be decided by the people, for the people.

Any future success will require breaking explicitly with the neoliberal growth strategy, part of which is Serbia’s integration into the EU. It will also require fighting for the extension of democracy in the political, social, and economic spheres.