Why a New Form of Ecological Imperialism is Developing in the Balkans

In Serbia the government has set the stage for extra-legal extractivism, enabling private companies to expropriate land for extractive enterprises such as lithium mines. A series of large-scale protests succeeded in at least temporarily halting the development. In this contribution to the BG’s “After Extractivism” text series scholar-activist Aleksandar Matković takes stock of the situation.


While the concept of ecological imperialism itself is not new (it has its roots in the writings of John Bellamy Foster and many others, most notably Alfred Crosby and Richard Grove), and the outsourcing of pollution has been the mainstay of corporations since the dawn of capitalism, both phenomena are a novelty for the Balkans. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, profound changes in the economic landscape of the Balkans took place. Most recently, the region began to be torn between different forms of ecological imperialism, from both sides of the divide between the East and the West. Only this time, in pursuit of so-called green capitalism, it is the multinational corporations that are driving the change.

A regrettable fairy tale of “jadarite”: how lithium mining came to Serbia

Among the many multinational corporations Rio Tinto is perhaps the most emblematic. Its arrival in the Balkans could be traced to the period after the fall of Slobodan Milošević on June 8, 2004, when the region was first cleared for geological research by the new Serbian government under Vojislav Koštunica. Rio Tinto then discovered a special ore in Serbia’s Jadar region – an unusual combination of lithium and borate called “lithium sodium borosilicate,” which was officially recognized in 2006 as a new element found only in Serbia.

However, if it weren’t for several favorable characteristics, the multinational corporation would never have come to this corner of southeastern Europe. First, it is rich in borate found nowhere else in the world and unlike other forms of lithium, which are also found in salt lakes and require slow and specialized processing, the ore found in Serbia can be mined with known techniques. This unique form of lithium could give mining companies like Rio Tinto an advantage over their competitors. And there are many competitors, due to the growing global demand for lithium, thanks to the intended transition to green capitalism in Europe and beyond – an emerging and expanding form of capitalism that has created new markets for electric cars and batteries, of which lithium is the key component.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

Needless to say, Aleksandar Vučić’s right-wing regime – once perceived as a “stabilizing factor in the region” and therefore publicly supported by Angela Merkel during her time in power – was prescient enough to take advantage of the new market. After the presidential election in 2017, the Serbian state moved closer to Rio Tinto. In July, just three months after the election, Rio Tinto and the Serbian government signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the implementation of the Jadar project. According to Mining Technology, “A pre-feasibility study (PFS) for the project was completed in July 2020, while a feasibility study is expected to be completed by the end of 2021. First production from the mine is expected in 2026, before full-scale production is scheduled to begin in 2029. (…) Rio Tinto committed $2.4 billion to the Jadar lithium borate project in July 2021. The project is expected to create 2,100 jobs during construction and 1,000 jobs once production begins.”

But not all is well at Rio Tinto. Quite the opposite. First of all, while the mine was expected to operate for “only” 40 years, a whistleblower from Rio Tinto’s Serbian subsidiary (“Rio Sava”) recently released documents revealing the company’s internal plans to mine for 99 years, well beyond the expiration of the permits.

Rio’s Serbian accumulation – extracting lithium or surplus value?

Because lithium does not occur in jadarite alone, but is mixed with other materials that have no commercial value, a lengthy process involving multiple techniques is required to physically extract the mineral that is the main carrier of exchange value – in this case, lithium. This process would inevitably lead to environmental pollution. Apart from possibly other inorganic acids, the concentrated and crushed mineral jadarite would be treated with hot sulfuric acid to convert lithium, sodium, and boron into water-soluble chemical compounds. These reactions – with acid followed by neutralization with basic salts – would release carbon dioxide and other harmful gases. Hence, the contradictions between use and exchange value are manifested in the physical separation of the element due to be exchanged, a process which inevitably causes environmental harm, including pollution.

But possible problems with future jadarite mining, which would require large amounts of sulphur and other acids, are not the only problems around. Contamination of water and soil near and downstream of the exploratory wells – where boron concentrations are more than ten times higher than the maximum permissible level, even in drinking water wells used by local residents – has already been detected by the aforementioned Institute of Chemistry, Technology and Metallurgy in Belgrade. However, the pollution will not be contained within the country’s borders when mining begins.

According to Uroš Anđelković, a researcher at the Institute, in addition to soil and water pollution, air pollution will be significant. Carbon dioxide and other gases, in particular, will be produced during the chemical processing of the mineral jadarite. Dust will also be produced during the mechanical processing of the ore. An additional large amount of carbon dioxide will be released due to the heat required in the production processes, as the processing of jadarite requires the heating of the solution. CO2 emissions will dramatically increase if electricity is used for heating instead of natural gas, since electricity in Serbia is mainly produced from low-grade coal, lignite. The released carbon dioxide, 5 to 15 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of lithium, will spread beyond Serbian borders.

Unequal relations between the two states and their companies

However, any reaction by the Serbian state against Rio Tinto, with its headquarters in London, would face harsh obstacles in international law. This is due to a bilateral agreement between Serbia and the United Kingdom that puts the two countries in an unequal position in protecting “mutual investments.” Although it appears to benefit both states equally, it is basically useful for one side only: Investments from Serbia in the UK economy are negligible. UK investments in Serbia – like those related to Rio Tinto – are enormous. In other words, what is officially declared as protecting mutual investments is, in reality, about protecting ecological imperialism by law.

Another example of an unequal relationship between companies and government is ore rents, which in Serbia are among the lowest in the region at 5-7 percent (compared to Croatia at 10 percent, Hungary and Romania at 12 percent, and Slovenia at 18 percent). And since mines, unlike forests, do not regenerate, there is no way to go back, neither in price nor, more importantly, in restoring natural resources or an untouched environment. So, in order to accumulate further capital by mining local rare earth materials, which also causes pollution, Rio Tinto exploits the inequalities between states. For this very reason, one could say that Rio Tinto is the very embodiment of modern eco-imperialism.

Serbia’s government could be seen as subjected to ecological imperialism. But it is not all that simple, because Aleksandar Vučić’s regime is actively complicit in building and sustaining this eco-imperial relation, e.g. by introducing the Law on Expropriation that is intended to enable private companies to expropriate land and pave the way for extractive enterprises such as Rio Tinto’s lithium mines.

A revolt against Rio Tinto or a new green breakthrough?

Even before the full extent of the scandal was apparent, the entire ordeal was publicly documented, sparking nationwide protests that could heavily influence Serbia’s April 2022 presidential and parliamentary elections. At the time of writing (February 16, 2022), it has not even been 24 hours since several blockades have taken place in Belgrade in front of the National Assembly with the sole demand of introducing a moratorium on lithium mining in Serbia. This seems necessary because even if the protests can stop Rio Tinto from mining lithium in the Jadar region, other companies such as Volt and Eurolithium, who also conducting geological research on lithium in Serbia and the Balkans, could go ahead instead.

Most importantly, the blockades are building upon previous three-month long and continuous protests across Serbia with tens of thousands of protesters participating, which have so far succeeded in postponing Rio Tinto’s mining and revoking some of its licenses. Hence, both Rio Tinto’s behavior and the local government’s subservience have prompted nation-wide struggles whose complexities and diverse class conflicts are difficult to see when viewed through the lens of the official political landscape.

Having said this, it is still worth taking into account that a new coalition has emerged between, most notably, a very well-known ecological movement called Ecological Uprising, the green, centre-left political party Together for Serbia, and Let us (not) Drown Belgrade, known for its opposition to urban renewal that is changing the face of the capital. The center-left green bloc-which now calls itself Moramo (We Must), in reference to the Croatian Možemo (We Can), itself inspired by the name of Spain’s Podemos.

Although Moramo has little to do with Marxism or revolutionary politics, it has the strength of having emerged from a mass movement in conjunction with established political actors. In this sense, it could nevertheless represent a breakthrough. The coalition uniting these various forces would, according to election polls, achieve 9 percent nationwide and 13 percent in Belgrade, likely weakening the power of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. This would not have been possible without Rio Tinto.

In sum, Rio Tinto managed to change the nation by triggering a counter-movement that radicalized Serbian politics. Meanwhile, similar companies have been searching for lithium or opening battery-recycling and processing facilities across other countries like Bosnia, Croatia, and Slovenia. This is how the global race for lithium began to have a lasting impact on the political landscape of the post-Yugoslav Balkans. And the changes are not just about electoral politics in Serbia, but, as should be clear by now, a complex nationwide movement whose future is still uncertain, yet which could be an inspiration for other countries. Its climax and subsequent resolution in April 2022 are yet to come.

Editor’s note: 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

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