Serbia: Mine protesters block roads near Statehood Day event

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In this photo provided by the Serbian Presidential Press Service, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, right, awards the Gold Medal of Merit of the Republic of Serbia to actor Johnny Depp, during a Statehood Day award ceremony in Belgrade, Serbia, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022. (Serbian Presidential Press Service via AP)

BELGRADE – Hundreds of protesters opposed to lithium mining in Serbia blocked roads near a government building where the Balkan country's populist president was awarding state decorations Tuesday, which was a national holiday.

Police cordons prevented the demonstrators from getting too close to the venue in New Belgrade as President Aleksandar Vucic welcomed guests inside. Among those honored by Vucic on Serbia's Statehood Day was actor Johnny Depp, who received a medal for his contributions to culture, film and the promotion of Serbia.

Depp had the lead role in “Puffins Impossible,” an animated TV series created in Serbia. He has visited the Balkan country on several occasions, including a film festival organized by director Emir Kusturica.

Vucic also decorated several dozen other individuals and institutions with merits in health, culture, economy, politics or other fields.

Several protest-related incidents were reported, including angry drivers pushing through crowds stopping traffic.

A group of environmental activists have camped outside the presidency building in central Belgrade for several days while demanding a legal ban on lithium and borate mining in Serbia. The activists called Tuesday's rally in another part of the capital to draw further attention to their cause.

Environmental protests have become a challenge for Vucic's government ahead of Serbia's April 3 general election. The government tried to defuse the movement by saying it had cancelled a planned lithium mining project in western Serbia by the Rio Tinto company.

The activists now are demanding the banning of lithium and borate mining in the entire country. They have argued that cancelling the Rio Tinto project was temporary and did not guarantee there wouldn't be similar projects in the future.

Savo Manojlovic, from the Kreni-Promeni, or Go-Change group, said the protests would continue in advance of the election. Serbia must tackle a number of environmental problems, including poor waste management and air and water pollution, to advance toward joining the European Union.

Later Tuesday, Vucic dissolved parliament and scheduled a snap parliamentary election for the same day as April's presidential election and municipal ballots in Belgrade and several towns.

Vucic has been accused of increasingly authoritarian ways, which he has denied. Key opposition parties boycotted a 2020 parliamentary election, citing a lack of democratic freedoms. They have joined forces in an alliance, hoping to mount a challenge to Vucic's populists this year.

A green-leftist group named Moramo, or We Must, also plans to take part in the election. The group has become increasingly visible and popular in Serbia as environmental problems and protection have come into public focus.

Activist groups have accused the government of favoring the interests of investors over citizens, their health and the environment.


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