Thousands of Serbs took to the streets for the third Saturday in a row to demonstrate against the pollution caused by heavy industry and mining companies.
Protesters blocked roads in Belgrade and other cities and towns across the Balkan nation as environmental groups sought to force green issues up the political agenda ahead of elections next year.
Campaigners had feared that the government would pass legislation favouring Rio Tinto, the miner that holds the rights to develop one of Europe’s largest known Lithium deposits in the western Serbian region of Jadar.
But President Aleksandar Vucic appeared to have defused protests earlier this week when he backed down on two key pieces of legislation, sending back a land expropriation bill and tighter rules on issuing referendums to parliament for reconsideration.
However the organiser of the biggest rallies in Belgrade, protest group Kreni-Promeni (Go-Change), said on its Facebook page it would refocus on collecting the 30,000 signatures necessary to force a vote on lithium mining, which it wants banned.
Lithium is a key mineral in making batteries and its price is expected to rise steeply as demand for electric vehicles rises, placing Serbia in a strong strategic position in Europe. However, many Serbs have doubts about the environmental record of big industrial companies.
“This is the first victory of the citizens since 2012! We’ll keep moving on! This is a win for all of us,” Kreni-Promeni said.
Vucic, who has led the ruling Serbian Progressive party (SNS) since 2012 and came to power on a pro-western, pro-EU platform in 2017, faces elections in April next year. The protests have channelled a widespread sense of anger at what is seen as an oppressive, populist rule of an increasingly autocratic ruling elite.
“Protests are not over, but blockades may be over,” Nikola Krstic of the environmental group Fortress Movement (Pokret Tvrdava), which organised some protests in the Belgrade suburb of Smederevo, told the Financial Times.
“We will find a new method to fight, a new approach. Maybe not in the street now, the protest will pause . . . I really hope that we can replace Vucic at the elections, but we have a problem because it is not a free elections. It is hardly a democracy.”
Analysts do not believe the popular pressure will dent Vucic’s power as the opposition parties are seen ill-equipped to take over from the ruling SNS party, which has participated in government under Vucic for most of the past decade.
“The opposition is disliked,” said Milos Damjanovic of the Belgrade-based BIRN consultancy. “If they appear, there is much less political traction. The environmental issue is a much healthier topic to gather around.”
Without a party structure, it will be difficult to make political inroads, said Vessela Tcherneva of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“We need to see how that evolves, and how persistent the protest is,” she said. “The Rio Tinto investment is not the main focus. It is a trigger but the underlying reason is people are getting fed up with the regime.”
Senior government officials also said they sensed political, not ecological, pressure.
“The main reason for the protest is the attempt to change the government without elections, not the environment,” deputy prime minister and minister of mining and energy, Zorana Mihajlovic, was quoted on the government website as saying.