Studying the history of the exploitation of both labor and environment in the Balkans reveals an enormous scale of destruction and dispossession. Yet even where the machinery of extractivism seems to operate as a totalizing system, resistance from below continues to emerge, as mirko nikolić shows in his contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism” exploring the case of Serbia.
The Balkans are one of the world’s cradles of mining. For some 7000 years, the Balkan territory has been mined by various powers and empires, local and extra-local, and combinations of the two. With the current push for the resource-intensive “energy transition” driven by the EU, China, and the USA, the Balkans are seeing a new round of extractive expansions.
Extractivismo is the concept originating in Latin America to refer to the exploitation of lands and peoples enforced by colonial conquest. And I argue that even outside the conventional context of colonial conquest extractivism has a resonance, in this case for the Balkan region. Beyond localized mines and plantations, it is a system of large-scale “nature resource” extraction grounded in the “logic of colonization” (Plumwood, 1993), discursive strategies of devalorizing and externalizing through asymmetrical dualisms (e.g. culture vs nature, man vs woman, master vs slave) and corresponding strategies of “cheapening” (Petel & Moore, 2017), paying these others “as little as possible,” ideally nothing at all (cheap nature, cheap money, cheap work, cheap care, cheap food, cheap energy, cheap lives).
Because it is based on discursive-material injustice, extractivism is conflictual, it is reliant on both engineering and managing social conflict as well as the monopoly of violence at its commodity frontiers. In the semi-periphery, extractivism gains a particular shape where the ruling classes, in order to “catch up” with the core of the world capitalist system, facilitate or autonomously create internal peripheries, and are embedded in material supply chains of global trade where they can still profit from international peripheries too. Another aspect of the semi-periphery is also a “resistance to integration” into said core (Blagojević-Hughson, 2010), which is often interpreted as cultural or ideological, but importantly it also is an intention to keep control of the capital flows and access to domestic resources, often rapaciously exploiting their “own people.”
Extractive capitalism in Serbia
In this text, I focus on Serbia and its capitalist transition period leading up to today’s critical moment characterized by both emergent anti- and post-extractivism. Since the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević on October 5, 2000, there has been a wave of privatizations of all industry, including mining, and liberal-oriented governments – both democratic (2001-2012) and right-wing (2012 et seq.) – who have been willing to support the expansion of “responsible, green mining” as a major pillar of economy for the “green agenda.”
In East Serbia, 120 years of intensive mining – first financed by capital from Belgium and France, then under the conditions of socialist self-management – has left serious impacts on land, waters, and bodies in the municipalities of Bor and Majdanpek. After a long economic downfall and several attempts at privatization, in December 2018 the so-called “strategic partnership” was signed selling 67% of the publicly-owned enterprises to China-based Zijin Mining. The company was supposed to turn things around, however, its accelerated expansion has brought about grievances, piling on top of lingering problems. Continued serious air pollution, breaches and damages to private property, as well as expropriations, have brought about proceedings, legal actions, and protests. In addition to that, almost the whole surrounding municipality of Bor is plotted for exploration, and a gold mine project by Dundee Precious Metals looms in the neighbouring Homolje Mountains.
In Smederevo, where the up’s and down’s of the metallurgical complex started in 1913 with a mix of Austro-Hungarian capital and domestic capital, the smelter was sold to U.S. Steel in 2003 – as part of the rampant transition from ”communism” to capitalism. After less than a decade it was sold back to the government for 1 USD (!). A period of “management and consulting” under the Netherlands-based company HPK Engineering followed, and the factory was eventually acquired by a China-based Hesteel Group in 2016. The lingering problems of air, land and water pollution have escalated since. Now there is indisputable evidence of almost constant breaches of PM2.5 and PM10 levels. After broad civic organizing, met with little interest by the company and the state, the locals have just filed criminal charges against the company.
Since antiquity Western Serbia has been primarily mined for antimony and lead, with various domestic and foreign-run operations since the late 19th century, and successive integration into the Zajača mining and smelting enterprise under socialist self-management. In 2006, this enterprise was privatized by nouveau riche Miroslav Bogićević – a management period which ended up catastrophically. The lead smelter in Zajača, then smelting car batteries, caused major air pollution in the village, and a public inquiry found dangerous lead levels in local children’s blood in 2011/2. Late salary payments caused a series of strikes in 2013 and 2014. In the nearby village of Stolice, an antimony tailing pond caused a catastrophic spill in 2014. In late 2014, Farmakom MB went bankrupt and Bogićević was arrested. The government footed the bill for remediation of the Zajača waste dump, and the EU Solidarity Fund paid for the remediation of Stolice. The new owner of the smelter has unclear plans for a restart.
Grand promises and popular unrest
Just downstream from the looming Stolice dam, along the banks of rivers Korenita and Jadar, Melbourne and London mining giant Rio Tinto has been advancing a lithium and borates project since 2003. Once the plans accelerated due to the government approval of the Spatial Plan in early 2020, which paved the path to the company’s aggressive land acquisition campaign, a major controversy and popular opposition ensued. As discussed in detail, an unprecedented nation-wide movement eventually pushed the government to supposedly “annul” the permits in January 2022. However, the company has not left, still hoping to develop the world’s largest operation in a bio-region and cultural landscape with a long history of mining and industry.
A critical mass of locals in the Valley of Jadar and adjacent Rađevina do not want to give up on the mainly agricultural use of land, and host a never-before-seen mineral processing plant for at least 60 years, and at least 57 million tons of mining waste essentially forever. To counter this dystopian plan, one current protest campaign now demands a ban on all lithium and borate exploration and exploitation.
The privatizations of RTB Bor complex and Smederevo smelter have so far maintained most jobs in their respective areas. However, this has also brought about a choice between receiving salaries and the health of their families. After more than a century of modern mining and metallurgy, in Bor, Majdanpek, Smederevo, Zajača and their surroundings, instead of a sense of well-being, feelings of anguish and uncertainty are widespread, together with disastrous consequences on the surrounding living world. In Bor and Smederevo, there is mounting medical evidence about the rates of malign diseases.
All this is but a tail end of centuries and millennia of sedimented pollution. The risks of ground and surface water pollution from historical mine sites, and the abandoned mining waste itself, amounting to approximately 24 million tons, are a systemic hazard with no allocated resources or government plan yet. New mining operations often continue or would take place in previously stressed areas. Today there are about 189 active exploration licenses in Serbia, covering about 7,3% of the country area. Considering the laws regulating geological exploration and mining, spatial planning, EIA procedures, and permitting, and especially in view of the misalignments between them which opens the terrain to skilled “allegalities” (Gudynas, 2018), many of these processes are bound to be undemocratic and lead to more social conflict. The draft of the Spatial Plan for 2021-2035 evidences a top-down approach to energy and mining, trampling over other land uses and economies.
Even if we limit ourselves only to the modern post-independence period, the history of mining in Serbia within its various politico-economic arrangements – foreign and domestic bourgeois alliance in post-independence Serbia (1867 et seq.), then socialist self-management in Yugoslavia (1918-1992), and finally predatory privatization by domestic entrepreneurs and foreign multinationals in post-“communist” Serbia – have arguably not been able to provide enduring socio-environmental justice and well-being. Instead, these arrangements have been based on different configurations of “cheapenings.”
Under the monarchic regime, nature and labor were cheapened, hence fierce labor struggles ensued. The socialist self-management has for a period dismantled cheap labor, however it was still reliant on cheap nature and cheap reproductive labor. Subsequent cheapenings of people and nature under privatization have perhaps been the most devastating ones in scale and speed. Further, the connections of mining and nature resource industries with the history of border-making and wars in the region, are painfully little-explored and not well understood. Beyond mining, lessons learned by other privatizations, especially the heavily state-subsidized privatization of the Zastava car factory by Fiat, or the ongoing construction of a tire factory by Linglong, show that even a longer domestic supply chain still dependent on foreign capital and technology, may not foster a clean, fair and just transition for all.
These patterns are unlikely to subside with the current global push for raw materials. Recent nature resource expansion in Serbia has been characterized as “ecological imperialism” and “green colonialism.” While partially correct, this is only one part of the complicated semi-peripheral double bind. In terms of CO2 territorial emissions, even with conservative estimates (there are data inconsistencies), Serbia is above the world average. There is no reliable consumption-based data (!), however, considering that import is consistently higher than export, it is very likely that this adds to more emissions. The material footprint per capita is more than three times above the “fair share” (Hickel et al, 2017). Car ownership per capita is well below the EU average but above the regional averages for South America, Africa, and Asia.
High time for an exit plan
Almost 50% of territorial emissions of the country derive from operations of the public energy utility with eight coal thermal plants, two coal basins with five mines. Power plants heavily breach the legal limits of airborne pollution, non-complying with the Energy Community Treaty emission limits. The public utility with its 20+ Mt of coal-based emissions ranks Serbia as number four coal burner in Europe – after Germany, Poland, and Czech Republic. At the moment, five more thermal plants are planned, of which one is in construction and another is stopped indefinitely. Serbia’s government, however, does still not have a stated policy for the phase out.
The region is warming up faster than the world average, with an increased frequency of weather and flooding events, May 2014 floods being a prime manifestation. As a priority, over-consumption and emissions need to be mapped in terms of class and regional differences, many of these are connected to exploitative patterns of globalized investment and trade, while other environmental violations are homegrown. The domestic carbon emitting elites – the 1% and the 10% – should be better mapped. As well established in international climate justice discourse, it wouldn’t be surprising that communities who are most-exposed to the effects of pollution and climate breakdown contribute least to emissions.
There is a rising social movement opposing another phase of “unequal (ecological) exchange.” Been there, done that. Instead of a large increase in extraction, I believe we need an exit plan, how to get out of fossil fuel dependency and material over-consumption, and repair – often mediated – unequal exchanges with other peripheries in the Global South. This sounds exorbitantly difficult to achieve, especially in the context of the ongoing health, ecological and labor crises in Serbia, compounded by a mix of liberal, right-wing, and far-right party dominance rooted in ethnonationalism and heteropatriarchy, with close ties to a wide range of extractive operations in forestry, agriculture, mining, real estate, finance. What is encouraging, however, is that there is a living history of progressive alliances for justice – translocal and transnational – on whose shoulders we can stand.
Farmers side by side with industrial workers
On May 7, 1935, after years of crop losses caused by acid smoke from the smelter in Bor, peasants started an uprising against La Compagnie française des mines de Bor demanding just compensation – for a vivid depiction, see Đorđe Andrejević Kun’s lithograph series “Krvavo zlato” (“Bloody Gold”). Farmers were supported by radical parts of the workers collective, and the smelter was stopped. A month later, the uprising was suppressed in blood when the police shot one and seriously injured another four protesters. Capitalists had full support of the monarchic government, as also seen in the violent suppression of the miners’ uprising in Husino, Bosnia in 1921. Many other times in former Yugoslavia, farmers have been side by side with industrial workers in strikes and protests. In the 2010s, the movement against small hydropower plants has managed to forge rural-urban alliances, a pattern now followed by the front to stop lithium projects.
Employees in the mining sector shrunk in the period 2000-2019 by 55%, numbering around 25,000, with larger losses in the metal-making industry which lost more than 60% workplaces. Many of these workers do not have stable long-term contracts. Coal miners often work in precarious and unsafe conditions, which the recent terrible tragedy in the Soko mine shows. On the other hand, due to the specific pattern of (de-)development, miners are still a major social force the elites need to reckon with, as recently also shown in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The coal miners’ strike in Kolubara in 2000 was the tipping point that brought down the Slobodan Milošević regime.
Meanwhile, a heterogeneous class of small-scale landowners, farmers, and mixed workers which farm alongside holding another job, are under huge pressure from agricultural land grabs, and impacts of the climate and ecological crises, often finding themselves at the front line of unchecked mining projects. Capitalist transition has caused a vast number of other losers, especially among women and the urban precariat, sometimes with devastating consequences. They all deserve and need a long-term just transition, or rather a just transformation aligned with global climate commitments, rooted in water and food justice, energy and climate justice, labor and care justice.
Extractivism can only be resisted through inter-community and trans-local organizing among the many who have been cheapened, kidnapped or plundered, and last but not least deeply committed to the internationalist solidarity with the Most Affected Peoples and Areas. In the semi-periphery, it is high time we say “no” to fossil fuel and green extractivism, that we refuse both carbon and post-carbon (read also: “green”) imperialism. No cheap natures, no cheap lives here, nor anywhere. Planetary justice here and everywhere.
Note from the editors: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de