Anti-government protesters block bridges and roads in Serbia

Anti-government protesters block bridges and roads in Serbia

Belgrade – Skirmishes erupted on Saturday in Serbia between police and anti-government protesters who blocked roads and bridges in the Balkan country in protest against new laws they say favor foreign investors who are destroying the environment.

On Saturday, hundreds of people appeared simultaneously in the capital Belgrade, the northern city of Novi Sad and other locations to block bridges and main roads for an hour in what organizers described as a warning blockade. They pledged more protests if the property forfeiture laws and referendum were not withdrawn.

Police prevented protesters from reaching the bridges, which led to clashes with police helicopters hovering overhead. The protesters then marched around the venue while they managed to stop traffic at a major bridge in Belgrade and on various central streets.

Organizers said a number of people were arrested. Police had previously warned that any closure of the bridges was illegal.

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A number of environmental groups and civil society organizations are angry that the authorities have lowered the referendum threshold and allowed rapid expropriation of private property if it is considered in the public interest. Activists argue that this will pave the way for foreign companies to circumvent popular discontent over projects such as Rio Tinto’s bid to launch a lithium mine in western Serbia.

Serbian authorities have rejected the accusations, saying the new laws are necessary 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 attracted public attention with local activists accusing the populist government of allowing nature to be destroyed for profit. Experts have warned that a planned lithium mine in western Serbia will destroy farmland and pollute water.

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After decades of neglect, Serbia faced major environmental problems such as air and water pollution, poor waste management and other issues. Serbia is a candidate country to join the European Union, but so far not much has been achieved in terms of improving the country’s environmental situation.

Demonstrators blew whistles on Saturday during the siege and chanted “We will not abandon Serbia.” Huge columns of cars and other vehicles formed in several locations where protesters only allowed emergency services to pass.

The protest coincided with a congress of Vucic’s populist Serbian Progressive Party where thousands of Vucic’s supporters were taken to the capital for the rally designed as a show of support for his policies.

Although he officially sought EU membership, Vucic refused to align the country’s foreign policies with the 27-nation bloc and instead cemented the Balkan nation’s alliance with Russia and China.

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