Serbian authorities have abandoned plans to build a controversial lithium mine, the prime minister has announced, after weeks of protests against the project that was to have been built by Rio Tinto.
The surprise U-turn from the government comes months before expected national elections as President Aleksandar Vučić’s administration tries to shore up support from voters after a series of major protests that gained traction across large swaths of the Balkan country.
The move also comes as relations between Belgrade and Canberra have soured after the high-profile deportation of tennis star Novak Djokovic from Australia on Sunday.
“We have fulfilled all the demands from the environmental protests and have put an end to Rio Tinto in the Republic of Serbia,” said premier Ana Brnabić during a televised address.
“Everything about the Jadar project is finished,” she added, referring to the mine that was to be built in western Serbia.
The mining project appeared to tap into smouldering anger against Vučić’s government, which has been lambasted by critics and activists for allegedly turning a blind eye to the potential environmental harm that could be unleashed by the projects of foreign firms.
For weeks, thousands have swarmed across key roads in Serbia to protest against the government’s handling of the lithium project.
Vast deposits of lithium – a key component for electric car batteries – are found around the western town of Loznica, where the Anglo-Australian company had bought up land and was awaiting a final green light from the state to begin mining.
Rio Tinto first discovered lithium reserves in the Loznica region in 2004.
The company had intended to invest $2.4bn (£1.75bn) in the project.
The mining giant said late on Thursday that it was “extremely concerned” by the prime minister’s statement.
“Rio Tinto is reviewing the legal basis of this decision and the implications for our activities and our people in Serbia,” the company said in a statement.
Earlier this week, Brnabić said the government was prepared to “fight against” any potential lawsuit from Rio Tinto linked to its cancellation of the project.
Critics of the project, however, accused Vučić’s government of paving the way for illegal land appropriations and brushing aside environmental concerns.
On Thursday, the premier added that Serbian officials had “never signed contracts” with Rio Tinto.
Following Thursday’s announcement, activists called on opponents of the mine to increase pressure on the government until it banned future lithium and borate mining projects in the country.
“Just one more step! We’re close!” tweeted protest leader Savo Manojlovic.
The hunt for lithium has set off a “white gold rush” across the globe as major corporations, including carmakers, scramble to secure sufficient supplies to meet their ambitious goals to switch to greener fuel sources and technology. Critics of the mine had highlighted the Vučić government’s poor record of regulating its industrial sector, saying the administration had shrouded many projects backed by international investors in secrecy.