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Dr Ratko Ristić Ph.D., Vice Rector for International Relations, University of Belgrade

Serbia Lacks Ecological Sovereigntys

Serbia is an example of a country in which environmental and public health threats are a consequence of poor political decisions, economic weaknesses, corruption and weak environmental protection standards

Serbia today lacks ecological sovereignty, as the country’s key national resources are exposed to the lucrative financial interests of foreign companies oriented towards profit, which unfortunately includes the mass participation of Serbian business, political, academic and media networks, explains professor Ratko Ristić, a corresponding member of the Academy of Engineering Sciences of Serbia (AINS) and a full professor and dean of the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Forestry. “I intentionally avoid using the word ‘elite’,” notes our interlocutor, “because those who do this don’t deserve a moniker intended for the best.

According to professor Ristić, one of the examples of this harmful activity is the construction of derivational type small hydroelectric plants, an area in which approximately 120 facilities have been constructed and generate 0.8% of all electricity produced annually while causing immeasurable damage to the biodiversity of watercourses and endangering the vital interests of local populations.

“Moreover, the private owners are paid 40-60 million euros annually – via subsidised tariffs – from the profits of EPS [Serbia’s state-owned electric utility power company] and on the basis of the obligation of citizens to pay a fee for “green” energy, without anyone having asked the citizens if they agree to that. In whose interest is such conduct?” wonders our interlocutor.

“Another example is the Ministry of Mining and Energy’s policy that has seen it issue almost 200 mineral exploration permits (for lithium, boron, gold, silver, nickel, antimony, strontium etc.) to private, foreign mining companies on an area encompassing almost 536,000 hectares of state territory. These companies come mostly from Australia, Canada and the U.S., which have much greater quantities of all of the aforementioned resources than Serbia, but which come here due to the lack of systematic concern over the applying of the highest environmental protection standards, thus reducing costs to investors and significantly increasing their profit rates, with no concern whatsoever for the ecological and health ramifications,” explains professor Ristić.

Are you of the opinion that the University of Belgrade remains silent on some pressing environmental issues facing Serbia or has it become more vocal? To what extent have you personally contributed to that change?

— In proportion to the total number of several thousand professors and researchers, few people from the University speak up when it comes to delicate environmental issues. It is actually the individuals from the University who consistently, argumentatively and persistently inform the public about threats to the environment and public health that speak out, but likewise a relevant number of professors and researchers also cooperate actively with investors on the implementation of projects that are extremely debatable. In essence, the University should contribute to educating and advancing the community, with a clear moral message about the inviolability of public interest, i.e., the protecting of the interests of the majority of people in our country.

Have citizen protests matured since the first ones? To what extent are the demands made of public office holders today grounded in expertise?

— If you compare environmental awareness in Serbia today to the period of 10 years ago, you will see a huge difference. Large numbers of individuals and citizen associations, as well as media representatives, openly discuss problems and oppose high-risk projects.

The only genuine protection against implementation of the Jadar project is the determination of the local community, the support of the Serbian citizenry and prominent members of the university, the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, the Academy of engineering sciences of Serbia and the media

The demands submitted are based in law and include expert explanations, but we still don’t receive appropriate responses from holders of state office and powers, who are often deaf to requests or work in a way that contradicts valid legislation.

Looking to the most pressing environmental issues, what do you think could represent a watershed moment showing that citizens have the power to change the decisions of the state and fight successfully for a better quality of life? Would that be the definitive abandoning of the Jadar project, the introduction of rigorous controls for the biggest polluters or something completely different?

— The protests of vulnerable sections of the population are increasingly the only watershed moments that compel state bodies to take into consideration the demands of citizens. It is essential to have visible systemic activity on organising representative monitoring of air, water, soil and food quality, and especially monitoring the state of the health of the nation. In accordance with this, state bodies shouldn’t hesitate in punishing polluters severely and suspending planned or current projects that pose risks to the stability of the ecosystem and public health.

The case of the Jadar project represents the paradigm of dishonesty and manipulativeness of company Rio Sava Exploration (the Serbian subsidiary of Rio Tinto), but also of the state bodies of the Republic of Serbia, towards the local community and the general public. Specifically, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić claimed that the state wasn’t behind the Jadar project, only for it to transpire that the Government had formed a Working Group for the project’s implementation (Official Gazette of the RS, No. 36, 2021) chaired by then Mining and Energy Minister Zorana Mihajlović and represented by assistant ministers and state secretaries of all related ministries, directors of public companies, heads of districts, but also foreign nationals like the second secretary of the Australian embassy and the head of the office of the World Bank in Serbia. Although a government decision suspended the project’s implementation following nationwide protests involving tens of thousands of citizens, it was confirmed that – in the 2021-2023 period alone – almost 292 million euros had been spent (based on expert financial analysis conducted by consultants of the Marš sa Drine organisation) predominantly on marketing and consulting services.

We also found out recently that Rio Tinto is one of several thousand registered lobbying organisations that operate within the European Union (EU Transparency Register) and that this company can also deal – in addition to the issues of critical mineral resources, batteries and the “Green Deal” – with Serbia’s EU accession process. It thus turns out that the distance between mining and politics is small, while a question arises as to how Serbia will compensate this powerful mining company for its involvement.

Based on the public discourse we’ve heard so far, would you expect ecological concerns to be part of the agenda of all stakeholders in political life?

— Topics related to environmental protection and our nation’s public health are only partially included in political parties’ programmes and are often used declaratively, in support of current campaign and propaganda activities. Some local governments show a horrifying lack of understanding for citizens’ concerns (Bor, Loznica, Žagubica, Babušnica, Majdanpek etc.) or actively participate in concealing facts and repressing the population, in complete collaboration with investors, which creates a climate of social mistrust, discontent, fear and despair among the population.

RESPONSIBILITY

University community members are obliged to nurture a responsible attitude towards the environment, in accordance with regulations

PLEDGE

Environmental topics are an expression of the deep need to live healthily in a high-quality environment, which should also be made available to future generations

REPRESSION

Environmental topics are an expression of the deep need to live healthily in a high-quality environment, which should also be made available to future generations