When the COVID-19 pandemic started early in 2020, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic angrily declared that Serbs could no longer rely on the European Union for support. Serbia could count on just one ally, Vucic said, the People’s Republic of China.
Since the beginning of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, under which Beijing has invested in infrastructure projects in dozens of countries. From mines to highways, factories to railways, Chinese investment has poured into Serbia since 2016.
China’s presence in Serbia is not new, links between the two nations were first forged during the time of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, but Chinese presence was visible only in rare cultural events and small Chinese merchant community located in the district of New Belgrade.
Speaking earlier this year, Vucic described the relationship between the two nations as a “friendship of steel”, a fitting description given the recent purchase by China’s HBIS Group of a steel mill in the city of Smederevo.
The deal is a beneficial one for China, given that the mill’s €300 million of debt has now been taken on by Serbian tax-payers, with the project described as a “saviour programme” for the city and the Serbian economy in general.
But the citizens of Smederevo - and nearby towns and villages - got more than they bargained for.
Vladimir Milic, an activist with the Tvrdjava - meaning ‘The Fort’ - NGO told Euronews that iron dust from the steel mill has coated everything within 10 kilometres from the plant.
“We are desperate. People are coughing, you can not open the windows and even the plants are covered in dust. We can not sell our products and the majority of us are not working in the factory-what we will live on,” he said.
Milic said that the locals are preparing a lawsuit against the company, while numerous petitions and reports were filed to the Serbian institutions regarding the pollution, but nothing has been done so far.
“We have protested in the streets but the government and the company are silent. We even found out that the government gave for free usage [of] the local port on [the] Danube river to the company, free of charge for the next 50 years,” he said.
The situation is similar in the city of Bor, whose residents took to the streets in their thousands last week to protest pollution after a Chinese company, Zijin, bought a mine there in 2018.
The mine is the largest copper mine complex in the Balkan region and its operation has led to a surge in pollution. In September, levels of 1645 mg of SO2 were recorded in the air, more than ten times the 125 mg permitted by law.
Local activist and opposition politician Irena Zivkovic said that arsenic in the air was 200 times over the allowed concentration just last year. She also told Euronews that heavy metals were detected way above the permitted levels.
“When we asked for the official data about [its] influence on public health, how many newly diseased people are in the region - lung diseases, cancer - we did not get an answer from the institutions,” she said.
Zivkovic said that Bor’s local government has refused to answer citizens’ questions about air quality.
Since the takeover in 2018. Serbian courts have fined Zijin three times for pollution. But in accordance with the local law, fines can not exceed €26,000 for this offence.
Neither Zijin nor HBIS Group responded to Euronews' requests for comment on this issue. The Serbian government did not answer questions submitted by Euronews.
Critics fear that as Serbia becomes a test case and model for Chinese investment in poorer, more indebted European countries, state assets are sold off at a cost to the local citizens and already flimsy environmental protections are cast by the wayside without repercussions.
They say Serbia is in desperate need of investment and the government has already shown a willingness to bypass normal regulatory protocol in order to shift a weak asset quickly, including the recent sale of Belgrade waterfront to a company from the United Arab Emirates.
Meanwhile, the business cooperation between the two nations has come hand in hand with security and military cooperation. Until it was shelved in the face of criticism from Washington, Serbia was close to purchasing China’s FK-3 rocket system, becoming the first country outside China to use the system.
But Serbia has already acquired Chinese CH-92A drones and Serbian defence minister Aleksandar Vulin recently said China has donated military equipment to the country.
In return, China has received political support from Belgrade, including Serbia’s backing of Beijing’s policy towards the Muslim Uighur community. Serbia is the only European nation to back Beijing’s claims that it is “fighting terrorism and extremism” in north-west China.
“It is obvious China makes [a] breakthrough to Europe via the Balkans, and especially Serbia,” said Vuk Vuksanovic, an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy thinktank.
Vuksanovic said Serbia’s status as a European Union candidate but not yet a member, makes it desirable to Beijing, which wants a foothold in Europe without the regulatory burden that comes from formal membership of the bloc.
It can add the support of Serbia to that of EU members Greece and Hungary, which have also emerged as friendly to Beijing, backing them in the European Parliament.
But Vuksanovic expects the spat over Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to make Serbia’s attempts to be close to both China and the US more challenging. Belgrade has become increasingly close to the US under President Donald Trump, but the White House is unlikely to look kindly it Serbia does not get in line with its all-out war against Huawei.
Huawei recently installed almost 1,000 high-definition cameras, which use facial and licence plate recognition software but also video management systems, at 60 key sites in Belgrade. There are also plans for a data centre in the city of Kragujevac in cooperation with Huawei.
“It will be a tough dilemma. Belgrade can buy time but when Washington hits Huawei, Serbia will have to decide where it stands. And it will happen,” he said.
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