BALKAN BLOG: Vucic’s tactical retreat in the face of mass protests

BALKAN BLOG: Vucic’s tactical retreat in the face of mass protests
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic surprised the nation by acceding to protesters' demands. / Serbian Presidency
By Ann Smith in New York December 10, 2021

After two weekends of mass protests, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic stole the show from protesters with an impromptu address to the nation on the evening of December 8. Taking protesters completely by surprise, Vucic appeared to give in to their demands, sending the controversial Law on Expropriation back to the parliament, after which the government immediately decided to withdraw it from parliamentary procedures.

In doing so, Vucic not only took back the initiative from protesters, he also made future demonstrations less credible. There is no doubt that alongside the people who passionately protested against Rio Tinto’s lithium project in Serbia out of concern for the environment were also those who saw that as a unique chance to express their disapproval of Vucic and the people around him. With their demands met, the former group are expected to stay home now, while for the latter the president’s move strips away any chance of using environmental issues as a pretext to express their frustration with the government and wish for change. 

Law on expropriation sent back

The law on expropriation had been sitting on Vucic’s desk for days after its content caused the large (but also controversial) protests throughout the country, in which demonstrators came out on the streets in large numbers and blocked roads across the country. 

The parliament adopted the changes to the Law on Expropriation on November 26. It aroused criticism and fear because of its articles that allow expropriation of public and private property if it is part of an international contract or project that is designated by the government as one of a public interest and national importance, N1 reported. An individual whose property is considered as such would only have five days to decide if they agree with the government’s offer and if not, their only option would be to sue the government through the Constitutional Court, which still wouldn’t save their land or house because waiting for the court’s decision wouldn’t postpone expropriation. The changes to the law were adopted without public debate, one more reason for citizens and organisations to be unhappy about it.

Besides the law on expropriation, protesters also demanded changes to parts of the Law on Referendum, such as an article that says citizens have a right to propose laws if they collect 3,000 signatures but also to pay a fee of RSD1.2mn ($12,000) to verify those signatures. However, on December 8, the government announced that it sent a proposal to the parliament to change the part related to the fee as well as a few other changes that the protesters had requested; they wanted their own representatives to be allowed to follow the voting in a referendum proposed by citizens as well a ban on referendums being repeated less than four years after they were initially conducted. 

Addressing citizens a few minutes after the government’s December 8 statement, Vucic agreed with most of the demands related to the Law on Expropriation and promised public debate about such things in future. He said he didn’t agree with the ultimatums linked with the Law on Referendum but that he still “wanted to meet demands of people in accordance with his constitutional authorities”. 

“My wish is for our highways [blocked by protesters] to be free! If I am thrilled because some will be happy when see my weakness? It doesn’t bother me at all, I am thrilled with their happiness,” Vucic said, reads a statement posted on his official website. He also announced a public debate on Rio Tinto’s requests. 

The move was particularly surprising as Vucic is well known to dislike protests (or any challenge to his authority), and over the last couple of weeks he has repeatedly criticised the protesters, slamming them in particular for blocking roads.

Many on the opposite side aren’t happy with his decision, specifically those that wanted the protests to just look like a wish of the local population to kick out (western) foreign investor Rio Tinto. Indeed, protests against Rio Tinto are still being planned even though some have been cancelled.

A well-timed move

Vucic and the government made the decision faster than previously announced and just a day prior to Vucic’s participation in the US State Department’s Summit of Democracy hosted by President Joe Biden. Vucic highly prioritises his international reputation and giving in to protestors’ demands may gain him points in the eyes of Democrats in the US that have long been sceptical about Serbia’s commitments to democracy. 

2022 is also an election year for Serbia and even though Vucic is always in campaign mode, carrying out the demands from citizens at this point will make his support stronger among those that aren’t against him but do not really bother to go and vote. On the other hand, such a move could stoke anger among those that are against him but also do not bother to go and vote.

A statement by Serbian Minister of Interior Affairs Aleksandar Vulin on colour revolutions also potentially sheds some light on why Vucic hurried to announced the decision. On December 3, Vulin met Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, and the officials agreed that “colour revolutions have become traditional instrument of certain centres of power and countries that have a goal to undermine statehood and cause lose of sovereignty, with democratisation as an excuse”. The two also concluded that “free countries have to resist [colour revolutions]”, as reported by local and international media. However, both Vucic and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic downplayed the comments. 

Europe’s biggest lithium mine

The Jadar project in Serbia is one of the largest greenfield lithium projects in the world, according to its developer Rio Tinto. Jadar will produce battery-grade lithium carbonate, a critical mineral used in large scale batteries for electric vehicles and storing renewable energy. In addition, Jadar will produce borates, which are needed for the development of renewable energy equipment such as solar panels and wind turbines.

The first jadarite discovery was in 2004. The company signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Serbia on the implementation of the Jadar project in 2017. The operation is expected to commence in 2023 assuming that feasibility studies confirm viability, and all necessary approvals are obtained. The company has so far invested about $90mn in Serbia, reads its press release.

However, for several months, the construction of the lithium mine in the village of Gornje Nedeljice, near Loznica in western Serbia, has been opposed by citizens and activists. Numerous residents have already sold their land to the company but now claim they made a mistake. On December 4, when massive protests occurred in major cities throughout the country, Vucic visited the village and talked to people living there and tried to reassure them, the official website of president’s reads. 

The residents of the village said that the main problem is Rio Tinto's plans for a landfill which the company wants to build in the Jadar area, between two rivers (Jadar and Korenita), in a flood-prone valley, as well as Rio Tinto's non-transparent nature which means locals don't get information.

Massive protests throughout Serbia on the previous Saturdays turned into a demonstration of a desire for Rio Tinto to be kicked out of the country because it damages the environment, “wants to take all Serbia’s rich mineral resources” and destroy its "beautiful nature for its own interests”. The most popular slogan of the protests and the one shared on social networks is: “Rio Tinto Mars sa Drine — Srbija nije na prodaju” (Rio Tinto march off the Drina [river] — Serbia is not for sale”). March on the Drina is an old Serbian song that was a candidate to become the national anthem. The song is about a call to Serbian soldiers to bravely go into battle against Austro-Hungarians in WWI. Some of its lyrics say: sing, Drina, sing… how aliens are kicked out from our dear river”. Other slogans were: “Together against Rio Tinto”, “Water is worth more than lithium”, “Rio Tinto leave!”, “Stop Rio Tinto”, “Rio Tinto F*** Off” and so on. 

Protest organisers divided 

One of the organisations behind the protests, Kreni-Promeni, has already announced that protests planned for December 11 will not be held provided the parliament carries out their demands by December 10. 

“All requests because of which we went to the streets were accomplished! This is first victory of citizens since 2012 [when Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party was first elected]! We are moving forward! This is the victory of all of us! If they conduct all requests formally and legally by Friday, we will be organising celebrations in all central squares in cities on Saturday at 14h,” the movement

Ispunjeni su svi zahtevi zbog kojih smo izašli na ulice! Ovo je prva pobeda građana od 2012.! Idemo dalje! Ovo je pobeda svih nas!

Ako se sprovedu svi zahtevi formalnopravno do petka - proslave organizujemo na centralnim gradskim trgovima u subotu u 14h.

— Kreni-Promeni (@KPromeni) December 8, 2021 on the evening of December 8, following the government’s and president’s statements. 

On the other hand, another protest organiser, the NGO Ecological Uprise, said it is not giving up rallies until Vucic kicks Rio Tinto out of Serbia. 

“Aleksandar Vucic cheats on himself badly thinking that by accomplishing two main demands, protests will be stopped. If the government of the city of Loznica, at a meeting that shouldn’t be held later than December 15, doesn’t decide to delete project Jadar from its plan, Ecological Uprise will call citizens to keep protesting and to block roads until the final goal is accomplished — kicking out Rio Tinto from Serbia!” the NGO announced on its Facebook page.

A western target 

Rio Tinto, indeed, doesn’t have a bright record, which doesn’t help its reputation in Serbia. It has faced numerous accusations of corruption, environmental degradation and human rights abuses across its international operations. It is currently fighting a civil lawsuit by the US Securities and Exchange Commission that accuses the company of fraud at its Mozambique coal business. That follows a $36.27mn fine in 2017 from the UK’s financial watchdog for breaching disclosure and transparency rules, as reported by The Guardian.

Yet it is by no means the only international company posing a threat to Serbia’s environment. Interestingly, none of those who have united against Rio Tinto were similarly outspoken against the Russian and Chinese companies that are active in the extractive industries and have frequently been criticised over their record on environmental and in some cases human rights. 

The largest in the field, Srbijagas, majority owned by Russian GazpromNeft, has the largest spectrum of rights to what Serbs like to call ‘national richness’. According to the Serbian government’s 2008 agreement with GazpromNeft, the Russians became owners of state-owned oil company NIS and gained the right to exploit oil and geothermal resources. 13 years later, Vucic publicly admitted: “We do not have our oil anymore! It is all spent or exploited,” Radio Free Europe’s Serbian service reported in September. According to RFE and based on the reports that Serbia submits to the Energy Community, the country has been increasing imports of oil and decreasing domestic production in the last few years. But, besides sporadic media reports and small protests by residents of various places in Vojvodina claiming abuses by Gazprom, nothing the Russian company does has attracted negative publicity. 

It’s a very similar story with Chinese companies. Chinese Zijin Mining Group is present in Serbia as the majority owner of RTB Bor copper mine and smelting complex. Media reported earlier this year that the Chinese company was asked by Serbia’s authorities to stop work at RTB Bor due to non-compliance with environmental standards. As with the Russians, there was no big media drama, no protests, no blockade of roads… 

There was moderate public concern at the treatment of workers from Vietnam in Chinese factory Linglong Tire in the northern city of Zrenjanin. The investor brought in foreign workers (even though they were expected to hire locally), namely 500 people from Vietnam, confiscated their passports and put them in dirty barracks with only two toilets, local and international media reported in November. Despite horrible scenes of the treatment of human beings, there have been no slogans calling for ‘Linglong out of Serbia’. 

It is also interesting that protesters, even though united in an idea that Vucic is not an example of democratic leadership, didn’t call out the government for not following EU standards or rules in the area of ecology. 

European Commission spokeswoman Ana Pisonero has actually spoken out in favour of the Jadar project, when she expressed EU support for Serbia’s efforts to attract EU partners and investments. She said: “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 statement contrasted with Vucic’s claim from December 1 of a corporate “war” over lithium resources among companies from China, the US and the EU, which he claimed was one of the reasons behind the protests, reads a statement posted on the president’s website. "European countries that send money [because] they want another company to take over lithium, not Rio Tinto, especially when it comes to companies from Germany," he said.

Can’t win them all

Aiming to create the strongest party in the country, Vucic followed a catchall principle, bringing together a diverse range of policies and politicians from Vulin’s  leftwing Movement of Socialists to the Vuk Draskovic’s far-right Serbian Renewal Movement in what is probably the largest coalition in the history of the multiparty system in Serbia. In theory this shouldn’t work, yet in Vucic’s case it has, allowing him to strengthen his own position and that of the ruling SNS. At the same time, there are many citizens who do not trust him and want to limit his power. This was also why many went to protest on the last two Saturdays. 

No one really expected that the disputed laws would be changed and that was probably the biggest surprise the Serbian president has ever sprung on his public. However, this step is unlikely to make any of the protesters warm to Vucic, which sometimes seems to be his biggest desire: to turn his opponents into his supporters. 

Ann Smith is a journalist based in New York, with a focus on Serbia and the Western Balkans.