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After the elections, anything is possible

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Although the opening of the lithium mine was halted in 2022 by a government decision, it seems likely that the company Rio Tinto and the Serbian authorities never gave up on the project. The elections are over, the Serbian Progressive Party has consolidated its power and secured stable governance for the foreseeable future. Although we can almost never be certain, it appears that there will not be new elections in the near future. The current president’s second term ends in 2028 (under the current constitution, he cannot run again), which is also when the term of the Belgrade City Assembly should end. The current composition of the National Assembly is also expected to sit until 2028.

Mass protests across Serbia, road blockades, and significant mobilization of movements and political parties led to the project’s halt in 2022, ahead of the then parliamentary elections. Shortly after the elections, signals from the highest state officials indicated that the project had not been abandoned. However, there was no room for the authorities to openly proceed with the project until the recently concluded June elections.

The President of Serbia recently stated in an interview with the Financial Times that the mine could be opened by the end of 2028. Allegedly, it is possible to extract fifty-eight tons of lithium annually while adhering to all environmental standards, which would be enough for the production of over a million electric cars in the European Union. The publication of a two-thousand-page study by Rio Tinto, which “proves” that the Jadar project is not harmful to the environment, also indicates that something is in the works.

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The Purpose of Public Debate

Few people publicly support the opening of the lithium mine. Besides government representatives, part of the “pro-European” public supports the project. The interest of the government representatives is clear. Such projects open up significant opportunities for corruption, and geopolitical arguments should not be dismissed lightly. This is the common ground between the government and the “pro-European” public.

While the former have an unequivocal interest and an opportunity to gain some international support, the latter see the project as a step towards closer ties with the European Union and again demonstrate their political naivety. At the very least, they say, it is necessary to open a debate about the project, as if enough hasn’t been said and written about this topic in the past few years. Confronting arguments and open discussion are supposed to lead to the best solution.

Lithium is not mined in populated areas anywhere, the technology that Rio Tinto would use has not been applied anywhere before, and there are no guarantees that environmental standards will be respected in practice. Opening a debate (where?) at a time when power relations are unequal and the government controls all national television stations and has significant influence over the public broadcaster would likely mean opening the door for Rio Tinto’s propaganda even in “objective and independent” media.

To make matters even more bizarre, more than a hundred experts who authored the study do not want to be publicly known as its authors, allegedly fearing a lynching from the opposition public. It would be no surprise if the government, in the coming period, portrays the other side as an aggressive minority that will try to stop a project of general interest through blockades and protests.

Decisions

The Speaker of the National Assembly, Ana Brnabić, announced that the study would be discussed in parliament. It is not entirely clear what the outcome of the discussion should be or on what basis studies by private companies become subjects of parliamentary debates. This is obviously another indicator that the government intends to implement the project and that it needs to be legitimized in various ways.

During the protests in 2021, the President of Serbia stated that the final judgment on lithium mining would be made by the people in a referendum. Of course, there is plenty of room for subsequent interpretations and justifications of decisions already made. Whether it will be a national or local referendum remains open. If it is a local referendum, it is necessary to define precisely which territory it concerns. There is no doubt that if there is a referendum, the outcome will be predetermined. In any case, neither the National Assembly nor the people in a referendum will make the decision.

Source : Bilten

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