METOVNICA, Serbia – 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 began to appear on the banks of the river that runs past his house in a bucolic village in southeastern Serbia.
But most disturbing of all for Verica Zivkovic and her husband, Miroslav, are the growing 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 peace and quiet,” said 62-year-old Ms Zivkovic, but everything changed when a Chinese company arrived.
In 2018, the company, Zijin Mining Group, took control of a copper smelter in the nearby city of Bor that lost money and began flying into the nearby hills in search of copper and gold.
While the couple and many other locals lament the arrival of the miners, the Serbian government has enthusiastically welcomed Chinese companies such as Zijin, despite their history of non-compliance with environmental regulations. Many of the companies bring in workers from China instead of hiring Serbs, and critics say some are helping the Serbian government roll back democratic freedoms.
When Zijin bought the former state-owned smelter, after another Chinese company bought a dilapidated steel plant near the capital Belgrade, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic praised Chinese investors as the saviors of his country.
Chinese money had kept two of Serbia’s biggest but underpriced manufacturing companies afloat, saving more than 10,000 jobs and strengthening what the two countries describe as their “steel friendship.”
For others, however, this friendship highlights the danger of transferring an investment approach to Europe and its impact on the local population that Chinese companies have employed in the poorest 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 mayor of Belgrade who now leads Serbia’s largest opposition party.
The axis of that strategy around the world has been to establish close relationships with a local strongman; in the case of Serbia, Mr. Vucic, democratically elected but increasingly authoritarian in his own way.
Vucic has become perhaps the greatest Chinese animator in Europe. It has put aside complaints about its business practices and declared that China, which has not only invested hundreds of millions of dollars, but has also provided millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccines, is “the only one that can help us.”
China’s leader Xi Jinping, Vucic said last year, is “not just a dear friend but a brother.”
That was a role previously played by Russia, which is linked to Serbia by a shared Orthodox Christian faith and deep cultural and political ties that go back centuries.
But, said Djilas, the former mayor of Belgrade, “now we have a new Big Brother.”
Prime Minister Ana Brnabic questioned this, noting that while “Chinese companies are helping Serbia tremendously”, German companies employ more people.
But it is often both the nature and scale of China’s role that draws criticism. Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, for example, has installed hundreds of surveillance cameras equipped with facial recognition technology in Belgrade, which the government says will help reduce crime. But privacy advocates say they have been used to identify and deter protesters, and to show how Vucic is using China to promote what critics see as a constant curtailment of freedoms.
The love between the elected leader of Serbia, who aspires to join the European Union and claims to share its democratic values, and Mr. Xi, the leader of one of the most repressive countries in the world, has shocked Serbs who want to join the Europe. do not lean to the east.
By offering large loans, vaccines and investments free from the constraints that the European bloc would impose, China has helped Vucic deliver on his promises to develop Serbia’s economy.
But, said Marinika Tepic, a prominent opposition politician, she is also helping “to build a police state.”
That exaggerates Vucic’s control, but the US-based pro-democracy group Freedom House downgraded Serbia in 2019 from “free” to “partially free,” citing tighter control over politics, civil liberties and the media. Communication.
In January, 26 members of the European Parliament demanded a review of the “growing impact of China’s economic footprint on Serbia”, including “reckless projects with multiple potentially devastating impacts on the overall environment as well as the surrounding population.”
The roots of Serbia’s inclination towards China date back to 1999, during the Kosovo war, when US warplanes mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. On that site now stands a huge Chinese cultural center. A marble memorial stone on the outside has inscriptions in Serbian and Chinese saluting the “martyrs” of China.
But memories of shared suffering at the hands of Americans have faded in places like Bor, the site of the Chinese-owned smelter.
Pollution from the Bor plant skyrocketed to many times the legally allowed level in 2019 and 2020, sparking a series of street protests and prompting the general manager of Zijin Mining in Serbia to tell his managers last October that it was “very dissatisfied” with the ”level of contamination, according to the leaked minutes of the meeting.
He blamed the bad publicity, which he said had hurt “the government of the People’s Republic of China”, “people who are pro-Western and supportive” who “have opposed our work.”
Bor Mayor Aleksandar Milikic, a Vucic loyalist, initially dismissed the protests as the work of political agitators.
But, apparently concerned about losing votes, he announced last year that he would file a court case against Zijin for negligence. It is unclear whether he actually did. The mayor declined to be interviewed. Zijin Mining did not respond to requests for comment.
Milenko Jovanovic, an air pollution expert, said he was fired in November from the Serbian Environmental Protection Agency after expressing concern 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 allows them to do what they want,” he said.
A Belgrade court ruled this month that Jovanovic had been unfairly fired and ordered his job returned.
Activists admit that air pollution levels in Bor have dropped since the protests, but say the main danger has now shifted to southern cities and towns, where hundreds of Chinese workers brought in by Zijin are developing one of the warehouses. largest unexploited copper deposits in the world. and digging for gold.
The land around the new mine shakes from blasting jobs and heavy trucks, driven by Chinese workers, rumbling down roads adorned with China’s red national flag. Rivers and streams are discolored by effluents.
The government has added to the 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 the Serbian Ministry of Finance informing him that he had to 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 only the interest of the Chinese,” he said.
In Metovnica, a village near the mine, Mr. Zivkovic and his wife used to have 25 goats but, with no clean water on hand after the well dried up, they now only have one.
“Why do we no longer have water? Why are there no fish in the river? “The answer, he said, is Zijin Mining Group.
Pointing to the cracks radiating through the wall of his house that appeared last year after Chinese miners began using explosives, Zivkovic said: “It was a small crack at first but then it spread.”
Confident that it has the support of Mr. Vucic and his officials, the mining company and other Chinese companies in Serbia have mostly ignored the complaints and concealed their operations in secret.
Sasa Stankovic, an environmental activist and elected member of the Bor regional council, said he had tried unsuccessfully to contact Zijin to discuss pollution levels. The copper smelter in Bor, he said, had been hazardous to health for decades, but the dangers increased dramatically after Zijin arrived and increased production.
Bor now accounts for a staggering 80 percent of Serbian exports to China, repeating a pattern widely seen in Africa of Chinese companies extracting natural resources to ship back to China.
In Slatina, a town at the end of the road, Miodrag Zivkovic, a local farmer stood on a rickety bridge over the Bor River, its waters were full of mud and garbage, and said: “We did not go to the Chinese mine, but it came sheet. for us.”
Still, she said, given the few jobs available in the region, her son would still like to get a job in the foundry, which pays relatively well. “Everyone here needs a salary and we are willing to risk everything,” he lamented.
Cao Li contributed reporting from Hong Kong and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.