Serbia wants to hold further talks with Anglo-Australian miner Rio Tinto about its lithium project in the country, President Aleksandar Vucic said on Wednesday, adding that there should also be more public discussion over whether it should go ahead.
Belgrade revoked licences for Rio’s $2.4 billion Jadar lithium project in Western Serbia in January 2022 after massive environmental protests. If completed, the project could supply 90% of Europe’s current lithium needs and help to make the company a leading lithium producer.
Regarded as a critical material by the European Union and the United States, lithium is largely used in batteries for electric vehicles (EV) and mobile devices.
Speaking on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Vucic said he had “a difficult conversation” with representatives of Rio Tinto earlier on Wednesday.
“We are facing the question of whether the company will file a lawsuit against us or not,” Vucic told Serbian reporters. “I asked them not to take measures to protect their interests.”
In 2021 and 2022 Serbian environmentalists collected 30,000 signatures in a petition demanding that parliament enact legislation to halt lithium exploration in the country.
Green activists have repeatedly warned that the mining projects will cause more pollution in Serbia, already one of Europe’s most polluted countries.
Vucic said he had sought Rio’s assurances about environmental standards and said that the next government – expected to be formed by May following December elections – should address the issue.
“(Rio) must offer the cleanest solutions, which could be satisfactory to our people, the highest standards in the world for the nature and the people who will work there,” he said.
In an emailed response, a Rio Tinto spokesman said: “We continue to believe the Jadar project … could act as a catalyst for the development of other industries and tens of thousands of jobs for current and future generations in Serbia.”
The company is focused on consultation with all stakeholders to explore options related to the project’s future, the email added.
To bolster economic growth and revenue, the Serbian government has offered mineral resources to foreign investors including China’s Zijin copper miner and Rio Tinto.
(By Aleksandar Vasovic and Clara Denina; Editing by Kirsten Donovan and David Goodman)