Serbia gov’t bows to protesters’ demands, changes two laws

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Serbia’s ruling coalition moved on Wednesday to change two laws critics say would let foreign companies exploit local resources, bowing to demands by anti-government protesters who had blocked roads throughout the country for two weekends in a row.

The government has offered mineral resources to companies including China’s Zijin copper miner 601899.SS and Rio Tinto. Green activists, who took part in the protests, say the projects will pollute land and water in the Balkan nation.

In the latest demonstrations, on Saturday, thousands of environmental activists blocked roads at 50 locations demanding changes to the two laws.

One is a referendum law passed last month that would make it harder for people to protest against polluting projects, and the other is a new expropriation law, which makes it easier for the state to acquire private land.

The protests represented a big blow to President Aleksandar Vucic and his ruling Serbia’s Progressive Party (SNS) ahead of elections next year.

A government statement said on Wednesday it had withdrawn the law on expropriation adopted by parliament, which Vucic returned to the assembly for further amendments.

Under the constitution, a law passed by parliament must be signed by the president in order be enforced.

The government also said it had proposed amending the referendum law to withdraw a requirement that civic groups must pay fees in order to launch initiatives for referendum.

Rio Tinto has promised to adhere to all domestic and EU environmental standards, but environmentalists say its planned $2.4 billion lithium mine would irreversibly pollute drinking water in the area.

In an address to the nation, Vucic said: “We have to see if we want that mine or not, and there should be a public debate about it. I want to calm people down and tell them that we are on your side and we will not make any decisions without you.”

“I am proud that police have not used water canons (against protesters). The democracy here is fragile and we have to keep it,” he added.

(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac, Editing by William Maclean)

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