BELGRADE – Thousands of people rallied in Belgrade on Sunday to demand an end to Serbia's alarming levels of air pollution. The rally came a day after another environmental protest in which demonstrators blocked bridges and roads in different parts of the country and scuffled with riot police.
The protest on Sunday decried the high air pollution in Serbia produced by coal-fueled power plants, a lack of proper air-filtering devices in mines and factories, and the use of old cars and pollution-producing fuels for home heating.
The protesters, carrying banners reading “The Air Is Dangerous" and “You Are Suffocating Us,” marched through downtown Belgrade, blowing whistles and chanting anti-government slogans.
“We don’t have to measure the pollution, we can see it and feel it,” said Bojan Simisic from the Eco Guard, the environmental group that organized the protest. “It is killing our children. I don’t want my children to be forced to flee the country because of the pollution.”
Serbia is one of the most polluted nations in Europe, but public protests over the problem have gained attention only recently. Activists accuse Serbia's populist authorities of allowing foreign investors, mostly from China, to further hurt the Balkan nation’s environment in their search for profits.
On Saturday, thousands of protesters blocked a key traffic artery in Belgrade and in other towns, angered over two laws they say would pave the way for further projects to wreck the environment.
The hour-long blockade on Saturday led to skirmishes with police and organizers said a number of protesters were detained. In the western town of Sabac, a video emerged on social networks of unidentified thugs beating protesters with batons.
Western Serbia has been at the center of the ecological movement because of a bid by the Rio Tinto mining company to open a lithium mine in the area. The company says it will meet the highest ecological standards, but activists and experts insist the mine would destroy farmland, wildlife and Serbian rivers.
Serbia’s autocratic President Aleksandar Vucic and his populist government have dismissed the environmental protests as political. They have promised to tackle Serbia’s huge ecological problems that have piled up after decades of neglect, but stressed that they have no intention of stopping coal mining any time soon.
Vucic on Sunday downplayed the number of protesters who took part in the blockades Saturday, saying they breached the constitution by “jeopardizing the freedom of movement of other citizens."
Vucic’s government is formally seeking European Union entry, but he has instead forged close ties with Russia and China. A number of major Chinese investments, such as the purchase of a large copper and gold mine and the country's only steel mill, have considerably increased CO2 emissions in the country, environmentalists say.
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