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The people against Rio Tinto: three ecopopulist lessons for the Balkan Left

Mural reading “Rio Tinto, get off Drina” in Belgrade. Source: Peščanik

Note from LeftEast editors: We are pleased to publish the second part of Ivan Rajković’s two-part series on anti-lithium mining protests that have erupted in Serbia over the last several months, and the broader environmental movement around it. See the previous entry here.

With Rio Tinto’s extraction of lithium in Serbia, the European Union was to ensure that the chief raw material for electric car batteries would be produced just beyond its borders, giving the European continent some advantage in the global race for the “green transition”. This development was stopped by a wide interclass alliance of affected residents, environmental organisations, and a wider public, who all protested the extraction as not only polluting but unjust, illegal, and an outright state betrayal. Faced with accusations of treason, and afraid of losing the elections, the ruling party stopped suppressing the protests and officially cancelled the project, forcing Rio Tinto’s stock actions into decline. Our story does not end here: multinational capital is still eyeing the lithium, borate and gold in the country, while the uprising movements and opposition parties reinvent environmentalism as a people’s struggle against occupation. This text zooms in on the struggles over land and rivers in Serbia to reflect on three wider tensions at the heart of Balkan ecopolitics, and three ecopopulist lessons for the regional Left. The first is green grabbing, that is, the tension between commoning and privatisation that structures all levels of environmental action – including the resistance itself. The Left is weak when it speaks about dispossession only: to turn energy transition into a material force, it must articulate all forms of emerging class gains that transition shapes. The second is the struggle over environmental debt, that is, the way debts to multinational capital are contested with one’s debts to their ancestors, who are seen as having died to liberate the land. The Left is alienated when it speaks in the name of descendants only: to connect itself with the anticolonial traditions of the oppressed, it must acknowledge all forms of generational sacrifice to which it owes life in the first place. The third is the national moral economy, that is, a populist bargain between the rulers and the ruled which might conceal another key social antagonism at play: that between the landed and the landless. To really stop the impending expropriations, the Left cannot shy away from the question of how to redistribute the land. But the real reason why ecopopulism is so appealing and yet so thorny, I argue, is because it asks an entirely new question: how to account for the exchanges of life itself.

Ecopopulist equivalencies

     In this text I suggest some of the ways through which the Left could learn from ecopopulist rebellion, rather than lecture to it. By ecopopulism, I refer to a way of organising that pits the ‘people’ against the ‘elites’, constituting the former as the defender of ‘life itself’ and depicting the capitalist state as the spreader of death. I do not use the term in a derogatory way, nor do I imply that populism is inherently right- or left-wing, exclusionary or inclusionary. Instead I speak of ecopopulism to describe the ways environmental causes get popularised across the world, with ecology becoming a medium for competing affects, meanings and demands. When the Balkan eco-rebels say that nature is “above politics”, which they say often, what they mean exactly is subject to constant inner contention. Rather than starting from one class, locale or identity, the participants must always articulate anew what binds them together. This, in turn, begs a question: how does environmental dispossession translate into political identity?

Corn goes to barricade: at a protest against Rio Tinto in September 2021. Photo by Ivan Rajković

      On the level of discursive articulation, I find Laclau’s and Mouffe’s theories of populism (1985) still helpful. Populism, they argue, is not a single ideology but a distinctive logic of creating hegemony by articulating “chains of equivalence” between different social demands. As demos is an agonistic plurality, Laclau and Mouffe argue, it can only be expressed through different groups’ mutually equivalent positions to a common enemy, rather than one stable signifier. In such a vein, it can indeed be said that environmental metaphors act as “floating signifiers” – broad enough to allow various participants to voice their different class positions, while temporarily establishing an ecopopulist universality. When an angry protest speaker claims this country is a diamond, for example, or when another compares the crowd to scapegoats and migrating swallows, they borrow the themes from environmental imagination to name the lines of dispossession and flight that the crowd shares beyond the entrenched fault lines. It is such “flawed” universality that makes the movement so popular, inspiring thousands of different followers where previous forms of party membership lost their appeal. 

      And yet, life is not just a stuff of signs, and the drives for ecopopulist uprisings are not so random. As Susana Narotzky suggests, populism is always a reaction to capitalism’s double binds: of demos’ power and monopoly wealth, freedom and dependence, equality and privilege. Sometimes, popular movements push for a just world for all, and sometimes they close ranks. But in all cases, they are products of an outrage of reasonable people inasmuch of their leaders’ articulation. Like Narotzky, I wish to go beyond Laclau’s formalist approach to discourse to focus on “the substantive motivations – both material and discursive – that push various agents (individual, collective, corporate, institutional) to action when confronted in a struggle for resources that they value differently” (Narotzky 2019: 98). What really drove diverse protesters together, I argue, is their persuasion that they defend a vital substance they depend on. The environment is here seen as a hypersubject – a common signifier that is somewhat pregiven to the act of gathering.

      Now for a Marxist – even a post-Marxist like Laclau – such idea of “higher goods” can be a hard pill to swallow. Isn’t this just a fetishization of nature, obscuring human productivity on the ground? At its most radical, I argue, ecopopulism seeks to trump circulation of capital with circulation of life. Capital’s ability to ever procreate itself through surplus value, is here countered with life’s own desire to expand – cattle searching for water; rivers flowing from one generation to another; ancestors passing the land on to the descendants still to come. Reproductive metaphors are thus no simple nationalism: they point to the imagination of deeper, life transmissions that sustain those of men and those of capital. As such, ecopopulism is a dream of going beyond both money as a universal means of exchange, and beyond Laclau-style empty signifiers. Against these, ecopopulists wish to establish alternative, life equivalences. But how that life gets to matter beyond mere biology, of course, is always situated at a specific historical conjuncture. Vital transactions might precede, but they are never separated from those of capital and those of political loyalty. Defending life always runs through concrete lives. So how do we share the resources we all depend on, if we are also differentially implicated by them? Who has the right to decide about the land, if it has never been really ours? And with whom to establish alliances, in the knowledge that each act of sustaining one’s life might imply ruining another one’s? Here, I explore these three questions that Balkan ecopopulisms pose for anyone who would like to guide them.

In the name of the flow: banner reading “Rivers give life and (solar) panels give electricity, gentlemen” at one protest. Source/photocredit: Odbranimo reke Stare planine

What do we share, and what do we not? The Great Green Grab

  First, the fact that all the sides in the conflict speak in the name of environment – from a mining company lauding green transition to residents defending their land – confirms that “the new climatic regime” (Latour 2018) is here. All politics is now environmental politics: the question is which sides are emerging in the green transition’s mist. What others have identified as environmentalisms of the rich and poor (Martinez-Alier 2003) are thus uneasily coexisting at the very heart of the local rebellion. For some, ecology promises a liberation movement; for others it delivers a continuation of capital in new ways. Sometimes, it can even be said that “ecology” is becoming the new “economy”: an empty word concealing new normatives at play. When lost in the game, the organised Left can pry open the contradictions within environmental action, focusing on class asymmetries behind the truism “we all drink the same water, we all breath the same air”.

Consider Rio Tinto itself, a company with a century and a half of mining history, eyeing its first expansion into lithium. That a firm deeply embroiled in colonial, and often, violent extractivist history is now interested in decarbonisation, is another example of green capitalism – an attempt to solve the climate crisis with the same means that caused it. The energy transition, local activists claim, is a new frontier for neocolonial relations, reinventing the world peripheries as the cheap suppliers of the “new gold”. For Aleksandar Matković, such “ecological imperialism” lies in the very ways that lithium is being extracted from its compounds, with the residents paying for the polluting effects of material separation of the use and the exchange value. But this knowledge of being in the midst of new resource wars complicates the movement’s tactics, for they never know whether their allies – e.g. the German and Austrian Greens – support their fight against all extraction, or just want to remove one company for another geoeconomic agenda to prevail.


“Clean lithium, a dirty lie”: banner at the highway blockades in December 2021. Photo by Ivan Rajković

      And yet, environmentalism of the rich does not stop at the nation’s borders. Within them, ecology becomes a promise of an enlightened consciousness, a bourgeois rediscovery of ‘nature’ as long as it does not touch the class distribution. Such is N1 and Nova S, the liberal pro-opposition media who were happy to support the movement until one protest speaker depicted the privatisation laws as theft. Then, their journalists started to wonder whether the movement missed the target and shifted from ecology to politics – ironically, the very same argument that the ruling regime accuses the activists for. Fearing to be associated with the opponents of late prime minister Đinđić – who was murdered after launching the market transition in the early 2000s – the protest organisers distanced themselves from the speaker, explaining that they too, like Đinđić, face obstacles because they “think differently”. An argument against privatisation was thus translated into a liberal commonplace.

But for many people I know, that speaker was right. After selling banks and factories, they believe, the only things left to sell in Serbia are water, air and land. “Privatisation of the society is our biggest problem” one villager in Topli do told me as we manned the barricade on a river bridge in 2019. Having quit his job in a factory because the new private owner stopped paying, this sixty-something shepherd was one of many dispossessed standing behind the rebellion. He voted for president Vučić but opposed the corrupt clique that, he believed, surrounded the president. He volunteered in the Serbian army, but dreamt of a Balkan federation with the “fellow nations” that would include Romania and Greece. And he militated against the investor who wanted to enclose the river his cattle drank from, and yet cherished the idea of redistributing the “water surplus” to the water-needy region of Vojvodina. In other words, this man’s was no straightforward nationalist, nor simply a possessive claim. Opposing what he saw as the privatisation of everything, he thought that the water should be shared

Shaming the investor: A caricature reading “He who kills a river, also kills the fish, the forest, the bird, the mountain. Small hydropower plants are evil.” By the artist Dobrosav Bob Živković.

Indeed, rivers have been the site of such massive mobilization all across the Balkans partly because they are seen as flowing commons: something that cannot be possessed, but only saved and passed on. In my research about the “river defenders” in South Serbia – groups contesting the rise of small hydropower plants – I encountered villagers clashing with investors, recreational fishers undergoing court trials, urbanites sending donations, and the unemployed devoting a great amount of their time, energy and poetry to protect the streams they love. For some it meant a direct defence of their livelihoods and their way of life. For others, it was an escape from precarious labour in towns, a promise of a self-sufficient return to the grandfather’s land. For others still, it was a promise of liberation and an equality hitherto unknown – an environmentalism of the malcontent (Arsel et al. 2015). What made these different desires commensurable, I argue, was an image of rivers as something bigger than oneself, flows running from times immemorial to generations still to be born. It was a claim of expanded kinship that suddenly included the cattle, protesters and the river crabs onto the same plane. When South Serbian activists use the slogan braća i sestre po rekama (literally “river brothers and river sisters”, the word for river here replaces the word blood as in ‘blood kin’), they signal that everyone who supports the vital flows is their kindred. The fight against new hydropower plants symbolically pit the flow of life against capital circulation. Rivers came to be imagined as the last shared substance, something that unites different actors in their struggle for the “streams of life” to continue – and against those who would stop them and spread death.

And yet, together with such equivalence of use-value – water as satisfying a universal need – came another, that of the market. Because you don’t have to be a capitalist to capitalise from the environment. Across Serbia, eco-bungalows are now spreading for middle-class urbanites sick of urban stress. Think tanks that were crucial for the liberal transition are now switching to sustainability agendas. And many researchers of the economy, including me, are jumping on the eco-bandwagon. Indeed, everything from mineral extraction through green advocacy to eco-tourism and autochthonous species breeding is now a new horizon of opportunity for all involved. And in that opportunistic jump, everyone’s declarations of commoning are compromised by an economy that constantly individualises their own social reproduction. Even when a villager supports a wider protest action in Belgrade, for example, they are still faced by the localised paperwork – construction permits to be contested, court cases to be won in each place separately. And even when one acts as a green left activist for environmental justice on the state level, their attempts of collaboration are constantly upended by demands for individual representation: as media search for charismatic leaders, Facebook supporters’ echo chambers, the funders’ preference for experts.

Put differently, the political economy of ecological movements demands that they stay atomized despite their attempts of collectivisation. Which is one of the reasons the Serbian (and for that matter, the regional) eco-scene has never united: dozens of organisations are at constant ambivalence with each other, residents of one village falling off with their neighbours. When we abandon the idealist obsession with unity, we realise that the fight is so generative not despite, but precisely because an abstract commoning is not an option. For whereas we are all plagued by the “green grabbing” of environmental resources, this strikes differently one who works in an air-purified office and one who works at a petrol station; one who defends their immediate environment and those doing it as a vocation; the citizens of the Northwest and those in the Southeast of the country; the landed and the landless. If something more than bios connects these different groups, it is still to be articulated. In other words, we are all at once amidst new commonings and new privatisations on all levels. Every actor is in a big rediscovery of who they are to each other, and what they do and do not share.

As environmentalism inevitably means an economic transformation, the issue of labour needs to be urgently repositioned back at its centre (Li 2011). This does not mean simply repeating the patterns of workerist politics, for the energy transition is partly a reaction to the displacement that industrialisation brought, and creates new class winners and losers. But neither does it mean conceding to the liberal common sense and the attempts to buy new class consensus. One emerging bargain is the pact between the large capital and the political class, who then present it as redistribution to the workers. The pollution, the president Vučić claims, is the result of the reindustrialization of the country, as he depicts new jobs, highways, and real estate prices soar as in interest of the working people. And in a recent visit to Makiš area – a green area and main source of Belgrade’s drinking water where now a metro is being built – he told the local residents not to follow “the fake ecologists”, because their houses will be more valuable once they get connected. Similarly, the Chinese company Zijin Mining persuades local residents in East Serbia to sell their land by giving their children jobs in exchange. It is precisely such land-for-jobs bargains that the Jadar valley residents are refusing when they say “Serbia is not for sale”.

But the bargaining is by no means the big capital’s exclusivity. In places where local struggles for environmental commons have been won, we see the emergence of micro-paternalist bond between the poor residents and the petty investors. The mentioned village of Topli do, for example, managed to defend its rivers through repeated altercations with the investor and much help from afar. But rather than shaping the rebellion further, Topli do insulated itself in revival efforts. From a symbol of eco-uprising, it became an ecotourist brand. The local houses are now bought to be rented, and the village’s uprising presented as chiefly autonomist affair – cut off from the surrounding villages and similar fights elsewhere. And ironically, at that same place where an elderly villager told me that privatisation is the society’s biggest problem, a street is now named after Mita Gaga – the pre-WWII private investor into hydropower, who, it seems, was a good capitalist because he was also a local patron.

Privatisation thus comes in many shapes – even within the social movements fighting directly against it. It is not only the commons that can be alienated: the practice of commoning itself can become a possessive affair. If the Left is to turn environmentalism into real material force, it cannot afford to speak about the commons in the abstract, without paying attention to the asymmetrical classed exchanges that environmental idealism masks. Nor can it afford to speak about the losses and the losers only: the gains and the gainers are many, from green capital to those rebelling against it, those leading them, and those writing about them. It is this eco-opportunism that forces us never to forget that ecology is, first of all, a matter of uneven exchange. And if the Left is to snatch the green from the state-capital embrace, it first must be honest about its own interests that connect it to – and yet separate it from – the interests of those it claims to represent.

Barricading a bridge in Topli do in 2019. Source: Odbranimo reke Stare planine

Whose land? Ancestral sacrifice as anticolonial debt

Another important trait of the regional eco-uprisings is the way they reshape nationalist, and beyond that, generational imagination. Namely, as the European Union seeks to achieve self-sufficiency in the green transition – sourcing lithium on the continent, away from Chinese and US monopolies – extraction models once reserved for the “Third World” begin to shift back to its own backyard. But so do the memories of the past world wars, infusing the Balkans’ greens with a characteristically anticolonial bent. Grabbing of natural resources, in this optic, is a re-occupation of the country, a loss of democratic sovereignty at a time when resources are becoming the last “wealth of nations”. We should not take nativism for straightforward nationalism here. Across Africa, liberation movements by replacing class with nation in a fight against imperial exploitation (Worsley 1970). Similarly, what structures various semi-peripheral ecopopulisms today is a sensitivity to various forms of Malthusian thinking that, in the rebels’ eyes, fuel new forms of imperial conquest as an attack on reproduction. Thus, if the protesters at the Standing Rock imagined ecocide as a continuation of US settler colonialism, the Balkan eco-rebels often claim that it is their own states that are the main depopulators of their own people, whom they gladly turn into “ecological refugees”. What here sounds as a classical blood-and-soil argument, I argue, in fact opens new gestures of solidarity with both the world’s oppressed and one’s own predecessors.

When residents’ organisations of Western Serbia frame their resistance to Rio Tinto, for example, they often cite the company’s wrongdoings in the countries of the Global South. The massive water pollution it caused in Madagascar and the Bougainville Civil War it allegedly sparked in Papua New Guinea, for example, are understood as impending scenarios for Serbia. And for those who would otherwise seem as just using the not-in-my-own-backyard rhetoric, Rio Tinto’s destruction of a 46,000 year old Aboriginal cave became a key reference point. “If they have not defended their own citizens and their sacred cave, why would they defend us?” says Marija Alimpić from Zaštitimo Jadar i Rađevinu (Let’s Defend Jadar and Rađevina Group). “A vest, anterija and sandals, we will end like the Papuans did’, one of the protest banners says, replacing a traditional verse on Serbian pride with a fourth world nation’s plight.” The “people” here is thus at once nationalist and internationalist: it calls to defend one’s land, heritage and environment, while making equivalencies with subaltern indigenous groups elsewhere. Which is why some nationalists have at times been far more internationalist than the liberals in the movement: if the latter condemn the pollution as something that should not occur in a “civilized” country seeking EU membership, the former reject such Balkan exceptionalism as outright racist.

Recap of the Struggle Against Rio Tinto’s Extraction Plans from Spring 2021.

Another opening of universality happens through memories of Serbia’s liberation – particularly World War I, references to which abound in protests against Rio Tinto. Namely, as the local legacies of WWII are too divisive – separating those who stood with the Communist Party (partisans) and those who turned into collaborationists (chetniks), the WWI can serve as a reminder of an united fight of a small peripheral nation against the imperial occupation. The key groups’ names and slogans are directly inspired by the fight against Austria-Hungary, claiming to carry that past heroism into the present moment (Marš sa Drine, Ekolubarska bitka, Odbranimo Cer). That Rio Tinto’s excavation points overlap with locations of the key local battles in the WWI only naturalizes this parallel. One of the groups, for example, speaks about the remaining bones of both Serbian and Austrian soldiers in the Cer mountain, which the extraction of lithium is threatening to displace. Others recall the local victims Nazis threw in the Jadar river, or the steal Rio Tinto sourced for the Third Reich’s arms.

A picture showing the war sacrifices in the past as a foundation on which family enjoyment of nature stands upon in the present. The titles reads as “Let us remember that somebody gave their life to save our freedom”. User who shared it also added “We have inherited  this country from the ancestors and borrowed it from the future generations. Nobody has the right to sell Serbia and its natural wealth.” Source: Savez mesnih zajednica Stare planine.


This brings us to the domain of sacrifice, a main figure through which Balkan anti-imperialisms mobilize. Namely, if the rivers have served as a symbol of life cycles that cannot be commodified, the soil is defended as something that had been liberated through great loss of lives in the past, and is hence inalienable. “We are not selling this country – we paid high price for it”, says one protest supporter for the media, by price meaning blood. “Our blood is not for sale” (krv naša nije roba), says a popular song in the movement, while one drawing shows past heroes as battling for the land on which, in the present, greenery abounds. By evoking war sacrifices, environmentalism shifts into an ideology of liberation. Land is here understood as not ours alone to possess and sell: it belongs to those who gave their lives for its freedom, and thus no living person has a right to alienate it. For as many repeat, their grandfathers did not die in world wars just for their descendants to sell the land. 

While such rhetoric estranges some of the local leftists, it is an important alternative to the ways ecological debt is being framed. For it is debt that sets green capital into motion: the revenues Serbian leadership saw in lithium, or the billion dollars indemnity fee that, it is now speculated, Serbia might have to pay to Rio Tinto. On a global level, Fridays for the Future and the Extinction Rebellion tried to counter such debt to capital with debt to Earth, citing our obligations to other species and the coming generations instead. As Andrea Muehlebach shows, water insurgencies often cite a debt to life to confront financialization as a form of life in debt. But such declarations of debt to life, I find, are never about nature in the abstract, nor are they only about the descendants. Rather, they are always textured by debts to ancestors, all remembered in particular struggles for liberation. In the Balkan eco-riots, patrimonies are real, peopled with children to be born as much as those who died for the land. Like premodern gifts, the debt of life comes haunted by the ghosts of those who gave their lives, and who can now be seen as the real owners of the environmental commons – transforming the present generations as mere stewards of longer cycles of transmission.

Thus, where states cite their debt to green capital – and where green capital itself acts in the name of the future generations – the eco-rebels cite their debts to the past relatives: a grandfather who died starving, or a mother who, lying at a deathbed, wants to take one more swim in a local stream. This means that there is no straightforward way to abstract the environment into one planetary good, or easily demarcate the nationalist from the antinationalist, the particularist from the universalist, the right- from the left-wing. Instead, we witness myriad forms of commons – all embedded in particular transgenerational struggles – which can be put into equivalence with one another, but never entirely removed from the land(s) they grew upon. 

If the Left wants to grasp such patrimonial sentiments, it must reckon with all generational sacrifices to which it itself owes life in the first place. In socialist Yugoslavia, it was the partisans’ sacrifice that was seen as a constitutive gift of freedom: the people of the federation, the official ideology rightly claimed, were forever indebted to the revolutionary heroes who died for them in WWII. Once the postsocialist ruling elites took power, they erased this socialist memory culture, which is why the regional Left is so keen to continue it. But the reason why singing Ay Carmela did not energise so much as did a WWI war march at a protest in September, I argue, is not solely thanks to anticommunist revisionism. Rather, this is a result of a preceding, socialist triumphalism through which the narrative of partisans’ freedom turned into their descendants’ privilege. Namely, as many had converted their partisan lineages into entitlements for flats and jobs in socialist Yugoslavia, the narrative of WWII revolutionary sacrifice lost its universality. Which is why it now moves mostly in the urban circles of urban, highly educated, and often identity leftists – all demographically cut off from the aged, emptied rural hinterlands where environmental frontier and rebellion take place.

To bridge this class gap, the Left must remember that all history is written from the victor’s point of view – even the revolutionary socialist one. The official Yugoslav ideology about the People’s Liberation Movement is not the same as the partisans’ actual plight in the WWII, no more than was King Peter Karađorđević’s politics in the WWI the same as the plight of one third of population, who, following him, met their death. As Walter Benjamin put it in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, historical materialism always connects with the struggles of the anonymous, the “traditions of the oppressed”. To conceive the revolution as a progress into a free future rather than acknowledgment of the unfree past, according to him, is nothing more than a social democratic trap: “this training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.” To put it differently, there is no communist sacrifice without the precommunist sacrifice: both are connected within the same transgenerational experience of the oppressed. And there can be no vanguard Left without the traditionalist elderly: both are made kin by remembering the same historical process that had made them rise, and perish.

Insurgent patrimonies: a protest banner reading “Don’t worry grandpa, the land does not surrender”. Author: Savski nasip

Whose state? National moral economy at a populist watershed

Now, where does this leave the Serbian state, or states undergoing uneven green transitions more generally? Serbian eco-rebels have been clear that their prime point of contention is not Rio Tinto itself, but the politicians aiding its favour. In speculations about the secret contracts between the state leadership and the company – including the illicit money deals and the alleged sale of confidential documents about ore wealth locations – the ruling party came to be portrayed as the chief traitor. In this logic, capital might wish to buy whatever it likes, but at the very least, the nation state is expected not to turn its own citizens’ livelihoods into commodities. As one man from the village of Krivelj in Eastern Serbia said, furious that he was ordered to resettle for another mine to spread, “I am not angry at the Chinese who bought us. They have money, so they are buying. I am rather angry at the man who sold me.”

Of course, the capitalist states put their citizens’ lives on sale all the time. In Serbia, factories have been privatized, labour laws and state subventions geared to (foreign) capital’s favour, and family homes exposed to expropriation from private bailiffs, who can take over a few unpaid bills. But the land still occupies a central place in the national moral economy. Following E. P. Thompson (1971) and James Scott (1976), here I understand moral economy as a set of unwritten obligations that bind the dominant and the dominated, which keeps a certain economic system in place. When faced with dispossession, the rioting masses are not necessarily mobilizing against inequality as such, but to retain the protections based on preceding reciprocal obligations. And arguably, it was the land ownership that was at the centre of such state-people bond in Serbia’s modern history: from the 19th century national liberation movements which centred on peasantry’s access to land, to duke Miloš giving the land to new settlers in areas freed from Ottoman Empire, to the mobilisations in world wars and then in the Yugoslav conflicts which, in their different ideological shapes, were all couched as “saving one’s hearth” against an invader. Forced expropriations, when they happened, occurred through nationalist or political revanchism; the country did not yet witness largescale forced enclosures of the kind England had before the Industrial Revolution. Therefore, the “people” had been constructed as willing to obey the rulers in the fight for the country, in exchange for a livelihood that is supposedly guaranteed to them by possessing the land. To do otherwise is to betray a tacit deal between the rulers and the ruled – the state and its peasants, a general and his soldiers families, a politician and his voters – and hence, makes the nation state representatives illegitimate.

“An economic tiger does not poison his own children”, a slogan from a protest in April 2021. Photo by Ivan Rajković

When the minister Zorana Mihajlović called for a resettlement of Krivelj, for example, a moral outrage is provoked by the fact that a person who was herself a refugee from Bosnia, now drives her own compatriots into displacement. A similar shock is expressed by an elderly woman in Topli do, who, seeing that the police were turning a blind eye to private investor’s violence, noted that “Serbs are attacking Serbs now”. Indeed, the fact that the ruling party acts as a saviour of Kosovo while at the same time giving foreign capital the best fertile land in inner Serbia, is constantly underlined as a paradox. In the words of Saša Mladenović, one of the leaders of Bitka za Vlasinu (Battle for the Vlasina river) group, the ruling class are bezemljaši (the landless) – they do not have a soil of their own to care for, and hence sell the others’ so carelessly.

Such accusations of treason shake the hegemony of the ruling block, for they question the basic assumption of sovereignty that liberal nation states rest upon. Rio Tinto is here seen as just the tip of an iceberg of a much wider feeling of being sold out. For his part, the president tries to deflect such critiques by denying he took any money from the company, and accusing previous regimes of doing so. The hasty cancellation of the project should thus be read as the regime’s attempt to save face. On the one hand, the regime is obliged by the deals it signed with the company, and the indemnity fee the country might need to pay to drive Rio out. On the other hand, it is bound to the same claims of national solidarity through which it claimed to be the people’s representative in the first place. When the Australian Open affair with Novak Đoković was unfolding over his lack of a vaccine certificate, for example, the activists of Ne damo Jadar organisation egged Rio Tinto’s offices in the town of Loznica. They argued that the state which is deporting the World’s No. 1 tennis player is the same one whose representatives decided to remove Serbians from their own land (Australia was a lobbyist for Rio Tinto in Serbia, and had representatives in Serbia’s official Working Group that decide about the implementation of the project). The police arrested some of the culprits, but Vučić and his party had no choice but to change their rhetoric, symbolically allying with the protesters.

      But simultaneously with this national realignment against foreign capital, Vučić tried to spin a new division. The residents of Jadar, he claims, act in the name of selfish interests, undermining the country’s need for development while some of them willingly sell the land. Pitting those who would profit from the mine against those who would profit from its cancellation, Vučić here points to the core dichotomy behind the seemingly all-national rejection of the Jadar project: the conflict between the landed and the landless. By this, I do not necessarily mean those with and without a real estate; rather, I gesture towards a split between those having the means to profit from the land, and those without those means. The latter are at the centre of those who willingly sell their land, and any future public discussion about lithium extraction – including a national referendum – will be affected by this gap. In not so distant future, therefore, the Left will have to muster its own response to the question of how to redistribute the land.

Lives in exchange

To paraphrase Narotzky (2019) again, popular uprisings always struggle against the double binds of illiberal capitalism: the mixture of power and wealth, freedom and dependence, equality and privilege. Often they seek a world more equal for all. But when faced with an inability to erase capitalist monopolies altogether, they can also refocus on defending particular entitlements – one’s own nation, one’s own class, one’s own eco-zone – a freedom for some that becomes a privilege in the eyes of others, and generates new forms of counterhegemonic resentment. At present, the Balkans’ eco-movements are precisely at this populist watershed. On the one side of it we see attempts to restore past privileges, on the other demands for expansive forms of community-making. On the one side, we see national opposition against foreign capital – and on another a much more open fraternity of the subaltern against capital as such. For the Left it is crucial to recognize that it is the same “people ” that stand on both sides – alliances are still in the making.

As the national moral consensus is always forged out of multitude of other exchanges – pacts between different classes, genders, generations and locales – it is never simply reactionary. Rather, its protean nature is both its biggest strength and weakness. For its part, the regime uses this very ambiguity to pit one section of the resistance to the other one. Vučić once blamed the river guardians for the increasing urban air pollution, which another group, Eko-Straža, mobilised against. In response, the river guardian Aleksandar Panić declared that the president wants to “set water against air”. Similarly, a suggestion to displace Rio Tinto’s tailing pond to East Serbia was met by stark opposition by activists in West Serbia: as one activist, Marija Alimpić said, the livelihoods of Jadar valley cannot be saved by destroying someone else’s. This consciousness of the externalities of resistance – saving my life might mean ruining another one’s – is also present among those who say that we cannot reject lithium extraction in Serbia, while still using the cell phones sourced by African and Asian child labour. An activist from the organisation Pravo na vodu, Iva Marković thus frames the local environmental riots within wider struggles over labour, women’s subordination, and global climate justice. Yet, such attempts to forge a trans-environmental solidarity of the oppressed (Fraser 2021) only work when they create palpable bonds of reciprocal transactions between different groups. When not, and certain groups feel left off the alliance – as once an East Serbian organisation felt omitted from a joint protest – they break off and form renegade organisations.

As Earth is no abstract place, any claim of abstract universality through “nature” necessarily fails. And so does any sloganeering over survival – left or right – when it does not acknowledge the asymmetries that the work of social reproduction necessarily creates. New class climbings, generational patrimonies and land attachments are thus no mere aberrations of a genuine “ecosocialism” stance here. Rather, they point us back to a reality in which all reproduction – human and nonhuman – occurs only through the bodies who, despite being singular, are bound to commensurate themselves. This is the ultimate lesson of ecopopulism: the defence of life occurs only through concrete lives that enter the exchange. And this is where Balkan eco-rebels seem to agree with Laclau: we share no common ground except the fact that we all depend on that monstrous, vital chain to continue. Where they part ways with both him and with Marxists proper is in their treatment of an ecopopulist head: for what seems like a vanguard leadership in the present is only a branch of a much older stem. So the Left, you better exchange yourself back to that stem – or else, get lost in the mist that both green capitalism and green nationalism are bound to make.


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Ivan Rajković is a social anthropologist and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Vienna. His work explores the politics of labour exchange and environmental mobilisation in Serbia, and more broadly, in the Balkans.
Ivan Rajković is a social anthropologist and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Vienna. His work explores the politics of labour exchange and environmental mobilisation in Serbia, and more broadly, in the Balkans.