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Serbia Roads Blocked for 3rd Weekend of Lithium Mine Protest

Protesters stand on the highway during a protest in Belgrade, Serbia, Dec. 11, 2021.
Protesters stand on the highway during a protest in Belgrade, Serbia, Dec. 11, 2021.

Environmental protesters blocked roads in Serbia for a third consecutive weekend to oppose plans for lithium mining, despite a bid by the country's populist government to defuse the demonstrations by agreeing to the key demands of organizers.

Several thousand people braved rain and cold weather Saturday to halt traffic in the capital, Belgrade, and in other cities and towns in the Balkan nation.

The protesters want the government to fully remove any possibility of companies initiating mining projects. Environmentalists argue that extracting lithium, a key component in electric car batteries, causes huge damage to mined areas.

Serbian authorities withdrew two key laws that activists said were designed to help multinational mining company Rio Tinto open a mine in the country's lithium-rich west. Fewer people showed up at Saturday's demonstration compared to the two previous weekends, reflecting a rift among protest leaders over how to proceed.

“There will be no peace until exploitation of lithium is banned and Rio Tinto sent away from Serbia,” Aleksandar Jovanovic, one of the organizers, said.

Serbia's autocratic president, Aleksandar Vucic, described continued protests as “political” after the government gave up on the two proposed laws, which involved property expropriation and referendum rules. Vucic said people would have a chance to express their preferences during the next election in April.

Serbia must tackle its environmental problems to advance toward European Union membership. Vucic has said he wants the country to join the EU, but he has also fostered close ties with Russia and China, including Chinese investments in mines, factories and infrastructure.

Environmental issues have come into focus recently in Serbia and other Balkan nations because of accumulated problems from air and water pollution. Protesters argue that authorities favor the interests of foreign investors and profit over environment protection.