Serbia: An autocrat and lithium reserves

Western actors’ thirst for raw materials also sheds some light on recent diplomatic volte-face in the wake of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine: representatives of both the US and the EU have taken a remarkably lenient line on President Aleksandar Vučić’s behavior in Belgrade, despite the continuing policy of destabilization pursued by Serbia, a loyal partner of Moscow. OSCE observers reported that the Serbian parliamentary elections in December 2023 were marred by intimidation on a massive scale and biased media coverage, but there has been strikingly little criticism from the EU on this issue.

This is even more surprising given that President Vučić is putting Serbia’s multiethnic neighboring states, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, at risk with his “Serbian world” doctrine, which envisages the unification of all Serbians in one country – and thus threatens to upset the existing peace order.

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Nonetheless, US diplomats continue to praise Vučić as a “good partner.” That Belgrade has been covertly fomenting violence in northern Kosovo, that Serbian forces abducted three Kosovan police officers on Kosovan territory, and that there was Serbian involvement in a terrorist attack that resulted in the death of another Kosovan officer: all this is being prudently ignored in Washington and Brussels. The political calculation behind the position of the US and the EU: it would be highly desirable to extract Vučić from Moscow’s embrace. At least, that is the unofficial explanation for the continuing appeasement policy. There are indications, though, that some very different considerations are also involved.

Moscow Says It Won’t Participate in the Second Peace Summit
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Moscow Says It Won’t Participate in the Second Peace Summit

Russia’s deputy foreign minister said that Ukraine’s “peace formula” is a “dead-end” and complained about the deliberate “ignoring of other initiatives” to end the war in Ukraine.

Jadar Valley: one of Europe’s largest lithium mines?

Serbia has an aggressive foreign policy vis-à-vis its neighbors, but it has something else as well: lithium. Experts estimate that the country is home to about 1.3 percent of the world’s lithium reserves. The Rio Tinto corporation plans to open up one of Europe’s largest lithium mines in western Serbia’s Jarad Valley. The reputation of this Anglo-Australian mining multinational is more than somewhat tattered: the globally active mining giant has already demonstrated more than once that the environment and cultural heritage mean nothing to it.

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In the Jadar Valley, too, scientists, environmentalists, and representatives of the Serbian opposition have been warning for years of the likelihood of long-term damage to agricultural lands and toxic pollution of the Drina and Sava Rivers, which supply water to about 2.5 million people.

As is so often the case, there is a lack of transparency regarding how the deal between the Rio Tinto Group and the Serbian leadership came about. In the winter of 2021/22, though, huge protests, which saw tens of thousands of people all over Serbia blocking streets and motorways for weeks, forced the regime in Belgrade, which has been growing increasingly autocratic in its domestic policy, to put the project on hold.

Nonetheless, it seems very possible that the lithium mining project will be continued at some point: President Vučić now describes his decision to halt it a big mistake. Meanwhile, Rio Tinto is still buying up land.

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The EU is behaving hypocritically in the Balkans – this, is the increasingly vociferous accusation levelled by environmental activists.

New form of colonization?

Despite the massive resistance to the lithium project, despite the clear and logical arguments of the project’s opponents, the European Commission also continues to emphatically support the Jadar Valley mining project. In September 2023, the Commission and the leadership in Belgrade signed a “letter of intent” to initiate a strategic partnership for the exploitation of critical raw materials, including lithium. Germany’s government has also made its interest in the planned mining activities explicit for quite some time. Angela Merkel, who maintained close contacts with Vučić back when she was chancellor, left no doubt about Germany’s interest in Serbia’s rich lithium reserves. Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has also recently emphasized the importance of lithium.

In this context, it also seems worth mentioning the establishment of an “institutional partnership aimed at strengthening the industrial strategy in line with the European Green Deal 2020 and at the same time strengthening supply chains,” as revealed by the Austrian daily Der Standard. Berlin’s contribution within this cooperation is said to be the assignment of a German advisor directly to the Office of the President in Belgrade. According to a report in Le Monde, Rio Tinto has also established contacts with Germany’s economics ministry, VW and Daimler. Policymakers in Berlin are keeping their cards rather close to their vests when it comes to lithium deals with Belgrade though.

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The opponents of the suspended Jadar Valley project plan to continue their fight: on her Twitter account, Serbian activist Bojana Novakovic calls for people worldwide to challenge narratives justifying the destruction of nature, fertile lands, and indigenous populations in the name of a “green transition.” In early September 2023, Novakovic called on the European Parliament to “stop selling out nature and people,” a direct criticism of the Critical Raw Materials Act. She calls for the protection of human rights and indigenous communities and the prevention of imminent environmental disasters.

The EU is behaving hypocritically in the Balkans – this, is the increasingly vociferous accusation levelled by environmental activists. Highly toxic production capacity has been relocated to poor countries, thus de facto exporting environmental problems to them. Tihomir Dakić, who heads up the Centre for the Environment in the Bosnian town of Banja Luka, describes the situation as follows: “What we have here is a new form of colonization.”

Dakic’s condemns the lack of transparency associated with the award of concessions for the environmentally harmful exploitation of resources as reprehensible, also reprehensible in his view is the overt cooperation of international enterprises and state actors with non-democratic forces, forces which the international community itself has repeatedly described as corrupt. The environmentalist is certain of one thing: Western investors have their eyes firmly focused on the Balkans, and their as-yet untapped resources, precisely because of the illiberal power structures that hold sway there.

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Albania: airplanes in nature reserve

There are controversial projects in other Balkan countries as well. Although environmental activists in Albania were able to celebrate a significant victory recently, when the Vjosa River, with its unique ecosystem, was declared a national park, their battle is far from won. An airport is being built near the port city of Vlorë not far from the Vjosa Delta – even though the area is considered one of the Mediterranean region’s largest ecosystems. It is the habitat of more than 220 bird species, including vultures, flamingos, and pelicans migrating along the Adriatic flyway, and a paradise for reptiles as well. Opponents of the airport are in no doubt: the large-scale project, stretching over 34,000 square meters, would forever destroy a landscape that is clearly worthy of protection. Gabriel Schwaderer, director of Euronatur, an environmental organization active throughout Europe, points out that planes using the airport would be flying right through the protection zone.

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The leadership in Tirana does not care: Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama makes no bones about his backing for the plans. This is another case in which environmentalists complain of dirty tricks by the authorities in connection with the award of the concession: the borders of the protected reserve were redrawn to exclude the site of the planned airport. The EU Commission has now also recognized that the project violates national and international law, and in September 2023, the Bern Convention Steering Committee called on the Albanian government to stop the construction of the airport.

Two things know almost no limits: the avarice of investors and the willingness of local politicians in the Balkans to ignore the responsibility they ought to feel for the unique nature and rich biodiversity of their regions.

Unlawful project: Munich Airport involved

One particularly fraught aspect of this controversial project is that one of the companies involved in it is a subsidiary of Flughafen München GmbH, the company that operates Munich Airport. The involvement of a state-owned enterprise is “extremely problematic,” according to Euronatur, which has called for the immediate withdrawal of the subsidiary (Munich Airport International GmbH) from the project.

The airport is not the only troubling project in Albania though. The Albanian government is planning to build an LNG terminal to the north of the port city of Vlore in cooperation with the US corporations ExxonMobil and Excelerate Energy. This would allow large volumes of liquid gas to be distributed across Europe. Excelerate-CEO Steven Kobos explains that a terminal on the Albanian coast could increase the energy security not only of Albania but also of Italy, Bulgaria, and other EU countries.

The planned LNG terminal would devastate the green Bay of Vlore as a recreational area, environmental activist Lavdosh Ferruni protests. The planned gas terminal is just a few meters away from lush woodland with unspoiled beaches, and it is not far from the Vjosa-Narta National Park. The construction craze on the Albanian coast is already getting huge, in Ferruni eyes, and now the LNG terminal that US corporations are planning will destroy the last remaining patch of green. Ferruni and other activists have therefore filed a lawsuit in the hope that the destruction of the coastal environment can still be stopped.

To preclude future litigation, Edi Rama’s government is trying to eliminate the “restrictive” boundaries associated with the protection of nature. In the last days of 2023, parliamentary legislation that would remove decisions on the exploitation of protected reserves from the scope of democratic control was hastily introduced. Approval authority would be assigned to the National Territorial Council, an executive branch body headed up by the prime minister himself. Environmentalists see the maneuver as a clear attempt to open up protected areas for intensive development in the grey infrastructure sector.

Montenegro: cliques, greed and an ecocide

Two things know almost no limits: the avarice of investors and the willingness of local politicians in the Balkans to ignore the responsibility they ought to feel for the unique nature and rich biodiversity of their regions. In Montenegro, too, an unbridled construction craze has been destroying landscapes and towns for years: Budva’s once-green hills are swamped in concrete, and apartment blocks sprawl out as far as the eye can see.

Undoubtedly, one of the greatest environmental sins is the Montenegrin section of the Bar-Boljare highway, which was built largely by China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC). During the highway’s construction, which began in 2015, a kilometer-long stretch of the UNESCO-protected Tara River was devastated. The Tara is considered to be one of Europe’s most beautiful wild rivers. Its riverbed was ruined and the biodiversity in the area suffered permanent damage. Environmentalists had been warning of the dangers posed by the construction for years but were unable to prevent what is now being called an ecocide. The Montenegrin Environmental Agency confirmed in early 2024 that the damage has not yet been repaired.

This is yet another case of a project given a green light by politicians at the highest level: the contract with Chinese Road and Bridge Company emerged out of clandestine dealings between the Chinese company and the long-serving Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, who, according to information revealed in the context of the “Pandora papers,” holds large amounts of money in a web of letter-box companies. The Chinese Road and Bridge Company is indirectly controlled by the Chinese state. The details of the contract are still largely unknown.

The pattern underlying “partnerships” of this kind with Balkan “strongmen” is always the same, in the judgement of Gudrun Steinacker, a former German ambassador to Montenegro: “There is a classic form of state capture: a man and his family, a clique around this man, a political party, the control of the state apparatus. Add in clientelism, and the state is the largest employer. Then a lack of transparency at all levels, and the façade of a constitutional state.”

There is another element we must not forget: globally active companies and states that seek to profit from structures of these kinds. Through non-transparent, unlawful investments, they contribute to the loss of credibility on the part of, above all, the West.

It is unacceptable that environmental standards held up as indispensable in the EU should no longer apply just a one- to two-hour flight away. Brussels would be well advised to adopt a stronger corrective role in the future and to arrange for professional and continuing support to environmental activists on the ground. The force of international conventions for the protection of flora and fauna should not be up for negotiation in Southeast Europe, or anywhere else.

Marion Kraske is a political scientist and publicist who has been working for decades nationally and internationally on the topics of right-wing extremism, nationalism and coming to terms with the past. She also focuses on the Balkan wars and the challenges of state- and nation-building in post-conflict contexts. Previously, she worked for DPA, SPIEGEL, ARD television and most recently as head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Reprinted with permission from The Heinrich Boll Stiftung Green Political Foundation. See the original here.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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