BELGRADE, SERBIA – Thousands of protesters in Belgrade and other Serbian towns blocked main roads and bridges on Saturday to denigrate a planned lithium mine despite police warnings and a campaign threats launched by the government against the protesters.
Blow the whistle and chant “Uprising! Uprising!” Protesters stopped traffic on the main highway through the Serbian capital. In the Balkan nation’s second largest city of Nis, the main street in the city center has been cordoned off, as has a bridge over the Danube to the north of Novi Sad.
In Novi Sad, football thugs hurl stones and bottles at protesters, who react by chasing them. A thug was brutally beaten. In Belgrade, masked men threw flares at protesters.
Uniformed police did not show up at the two-hour protest, the largest demonstration against the populist government in Serbia in years.
This is the second nationwide protest called by environmental groups amid growing public discontent with the autocratic regime of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic.
Last Saturday, protesters clashed with police and in one town unidentified masked men attacked them with sticks and hammers.
Environmental groups have criticized Vucic’s populist government for not doing enough to combat widespread pollution in the Balkan country. They are specifically against two legislation passed by parliament that they see as laying the groundwork for Rio Tinto’s lithium mining operations in western Serbia.
In a sign of defiance, Vucic on Saturday ignored the protests and headed to the site where the international mining company plans to begin excavating. His office said he wanted to talk to locals about the project.
“Our goal is to have a civilized conversation and not be pressured from the streets,” Vucic told pro-government Pink TV, adding that police would not intervene on Saturday against people protest.
Vucic and other Serbian officials denounced the protests, claiming they were funded by the West to destabilize the country and bring the opposition to power.
Defense Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said: “The blockade of bridges, highways, roads and paralysis of life in Belgrade and other cities in Serbia is not a way to express opinions, but to express seriously violate the rights of most citizens”. Opposition parties “wants to return to power at any cost.”
Many protesters complained that police officers had arrived at their homes and warned them they could face legal consequences and fines if they joined the environmental protests.
Activist Danijela Vujovic from the southern city of Nis said police went to her home in the morning to warn her that the protests were a “criminal act”.
“I don’t understand how this is an act of crime,” Vujosevic told regional broadcaster N1. Vujosevic’s daughter can be seen holding a small banner that reads “I’m public!”
Police on Saturday repeated their warning that the protests are illegal and organizers will bear all the consequences in the end. They also provided a special phone number and an email address for anyone who wanted to report “the violence caused by the blockade.”
AP contributor Jovana Gec.