Serbia hails Chinese companies as saviours, but locals chafe at costs

The New York Times
Metovnica, Serbia Written By: Andrew Higgins © 2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Mar 28, 2021, 02:48 PM IST

Photograph:(The New York Times)

Story highlights

By offering big loans, vaccines and investment free of the constraints that would be imposed by the European bloc, China has helped Vucic deliver on promises to develop Serbia’s economy

The well in the retired couple’s yard, their only source of clean water, began to dry up two years ago. Last year, dead fish started washing up on the banks of the river that runs by their home in a bucolic village in southeastern Serbia.

But most disturbing of all for Verica Zivkovic and her husband, Miroslav, are the ever-widening cracks in the walls of the house they built after moving to the countryside more than a decade ago to raise goats.

“We came here for the peace and quiet,” said Zivkovic, 62, but that all changed when a Chinese company arrived.

In 2018, the company, Zijin Mining Group, took control of a money-losing copper smelter in the nearby city of Bor and began blasting away in the nearby hills in search of copper and gold.

While the couple and many other locals bemoan the arrival of the miners, the Serbian government has enthusiastically welcomed Chinese companies like Zijin, despite their record of flouting environmental rules. Many of the companies bring in workers from China rather than hiring Serbs, and critics say some are helping Serbia’s government roll back democratic freedoms.

When Zijin purchased the previously state-owned smelter, after a different Chinese company bought an ailing steel plant near the capital, Belgrade, Serbia’s president, Alexander Vucic, hailed Chinese investors as his country’s saviors.

Chinese money had kept afloat two of Serbia’s biggest but badly listing manufacturing enterprises, saving more than 10,000 jobs and fortifying what the two countries describe as their “friendship of steel.”

For others, however, this friendship highlights the peril of transferring to Europe an approach to investment and its impact on locals that Chinese companies have employed in poorer regions of the world.

“China is operating in Serbia the same way it did in Africa — it has the same strategy,” said Dragan Djilas, a businessman and former Belgrade mayor who now leads Serbia’s biggest opposition party.

The linchpin of that strategy around the world has been to establish close relations with a local strongman — in Serbia’s case, Vucic, democratically elected but increasingly authoritarian in his ways.

Vucic has become perhaps China’s biggest cheerleader in Europe. He has brushed aside complaints about its business practices and declared China, which has not only invested hundreds of millions of dollars but also provided millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines, to be “the only ones who can help us.”

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, is “not only a dear friend but a brother,” Vucic said last year.

The love-in between the elected leader of Serbia, which aspires to join the European Union and claims to share its democratic values, and Xi, leader of one of the world’s most repressive countries, has dismayed Serbians who want to join Europe, not tilt eastward.

By offering big loans, vaccines and investment free of the constraints that would be imposed by the European bloc, China has helped Vucic deliver on promises to develop Serbia’s economy.

But, said Marinika Tepic, a prominent opposition politician, it is also helping “to build a police state.”

That exaggerates Vucic’s grip, but U.S.-based pro-democracy group Freedom House downgraded Serbia in 2019 from “free” to “partly free,” citing a tightening grip on politics, civil liberties and the media.

In January, 26 members of the European Parliament demanded a review of the “growing impact of China’s economic footprint in Serbia,” including “reckless projects with potentially devastating multiple impacts on the wider environment as well as surrounding population.”

Pollution from the Bor plant skyrocketed to many times the legally permitted level in 2019 and 2020, setting off a series of street protests and prompting Zijin Mining’s general manager in Serbia to tell his managers in October that he was “very dissatisfied” with the “frightening” level of pollution, according to leaked minutes of the meeting.

He blamed the bad publicity, which he said had damaged “the government of the People’s Republic of China,” on “people who are in favour of the West and receive support” who “have stood in opposition to our work.”

Bor’s mayor, Aleksandar Milikic, a Vucic loyalist, initially dismissed the protests as the work of political agitators.

But, apparently worried about losing votes, he announced last year that he would file a court case against Zijin for negligence. It is not clear whether he actually did so. The mayor declined to be interviewed, and Zijin Mining did not respond to requests for comment.

Milenko Jovanovic, an air pollution expert, said he was fired in November from Serbia’s Environmental Protection Agency after raising concerns about dangerously high levels of sulfur dioxide and arsenic in the air around Bor.

The government, he said, rejected anything that might upset China and its investors.

“It lets them do whatever they want to do,” he said.

A court in Belgrade ruled this month that Jovanovic had been unfairly dismissed and ordered that he be given his job back.

Activists concede that air pollution levels in Bor have fallen since protests but say that the main danger has now shifted to towns and villages to the south, where hundreds of Chinese workers brought in by Zijin are developing one of the world’s biggest unexploited copper deposits, and digging for gold.

The earth around the new mine trembles from blasting work, and the heavy trucks, driven by Chinese workers, rumble along roads adorned with China’s red national flag. Rivers and streams are discoloured by effluent.

The government has added to public anger by issuing expropriation orders so that Zijin can build access roads and expand its mine. Dragan Viacic, a farmer, said he had received a letter from Serbia’s finance ministry informing him that he must sell 13 acres of his land at a fraction of the market price.

“They said this was necessary in the public interest, but in reality this is just the interest of the Chinese,” he said.

In Metovnica, a village near the mine, Zivkovic and his wife used to have 25 goats but, with no clean water on hand after their well dried up, they now keep just one.

“Why don’t we have any water anymore? Why are there no fish in the river?” The answer, he said, is Zijin Mining Group.

Pointing to fissures radiating across the wall of his house that appeared last year after Chinese miners started using explosives, Zivkovic said, “It was a tiny crack at first, but then it spread.”