BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – Skirmishes erupted in Serbia on Saturday between police and anti-government protesters who blocked roads and bridges in the Balkan country to protest new laws they say favor investor interests aliens devastating the environment.
Hundreds of people appeared simultaneously in the capital Belgrade, the northern city of Novi Sad, and other places on Saturday to block major bridges and roads for an hour in what organizers called a blockade of ‘Warning. They promised further protests if the laws on expropriation of property and the referendum were not withdrawn.
Police officers prevented protesters from reaching the bridges, which led to skirmishes as police helicopters flew overhead. Protesters then marched while successfully stopping traffic on a key Belgrade bridge and various streets in the center.
Organizers said a number of people were arrested. Police had warned earlier that any blockade of bridges was illegal.
A number of environmental groups and civil society organizations are unhappy that authorities have lowered the threshold for the referendum and allowed the rapid expropriation of private property if deemed to be in the public interest. Activists say this will pave the way for foreign companies to bypass popular discontent over plans such as Rio Tinto’s offer to start a lithium mine in western Serbia.
Serbian authorities have dismissed the charges, saying the new laws are needed because of the infrastructure projects. The country’s autocratic president, Aleksandar Vucic, has said that a referendum will be held on the Rio Tinto mine.
Environmental issues have recently gained public attention as local activists accuse the populist government of allowing the devastation of nature for profit. Experts have warned that the planned lithium mine in western Serbia will destroy farmland and pollute water.
After decades of neglect, Serbia has faced major environmental problems such as air and water pollution, poor waste management and other problems. Serbia is a candidate country for EU membership, but little progress has been made so far in improving the country’s environmental situation.
Saturday protesters whistled during the blockade and chanted “We will not abandon Serbia”. Huge columns of cars and other vehicles formed in several places as protesters only let emergency services through.
The protest coincided with a convention of Vucic’s populist Serbian Progressive Party as thousands of his supporters were transported by bus to the capital for the rally intended as a show of support for his policies.
Despite officially seeking EU membership, Vucic has refused to align the country’s foreign policy with the 27-nation bloc and instead bolstered the Balkan country’s alliance with Russia and China.
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