Skirmishes have erupted in Serbia between police and demonstrators who blocked roads and bridges to protest against new laws they say favour the interests of foreign investors damaging the environment.
The government has offered mineral resources to companies including China’s Zijin copper miner and Rio Tinto, but activists say the projects would pollute land and water.
Hundreds of people on Saturday appeared simultaneously in the capital, Belgrade, the northern city of Novi Sad and other locations to block main bridges and roads for one hour in what organisers described as a warning blockade. They pledged further protests if the laws on property expropriation and referendum were not withdrawn.
Environmental groups and civil society organisations are angry over a recent referendum reform, which they say will effectively stop popular initiatives against polluting projects by establishing hefty administrative fees. They are also opposed to a new expropriation law, which allows the mandatory acquisition of private land by the state within eight days.
Activists argue the moves will pave the way for foreign companies to circumvent popular discontent over projects such as the bid by Rio Tinto to launch a lithium mine in western Serbia.
“I’m angered because we’re an occupied country … I don’t know why [other] people are silent,” said Marija Popovic, 35, a protester in Belgrade.
Serbia’s authorities have rejected the accusations, saying the new laws are needed because of infrastructure projects. President Aleksandar Vucic said a referendum will be organised on the Rio Tinto mine.
Experts have warned that the planned lithium mine would destroy farmland and pollute the waters.
Rio Tinto has said it would adhere to all domestic and European Union environmental standards at the site. It plans to invest $2.4bn in the project, according to Vesna Prodanovic, director of Rio Sava, Rio Tinto’s sister company in Serbia.
Following decades of neglect, Serbia has faced major environmental problems such as air and water pollution, poor waste management and other issues.
Serbia is a candidate nation for European Union entry, but little so far has been achieved with regards to improving the country’s environmental situation.