The Serbian government canceled exploration licenses for a lithium mine that had been granted to Rio Tinto, an Australian mining company.
The move follows weeks of protests over the possible mine and souring relations between Serbia and Australia stemming from the deportation of tennis player Novak Djokovic.
Djokovic, the world’s No.1 tennis player and popular sports icon in his native Serbia, was given a medical exemption to Australia’s vaccine mandate to participate in the Australian Open.
His visa was denied when he arrived in January, leading to a series of court decisions and reversals. Ultimately, Immigration Minister Alex Hawke chose to cancel the tennis players visa three days before the Open began.
“I welcome the decision to keep our borders strong and keep Australians safe,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement following Hawke’s decision.
Serbian President Alexander Vucic accused the government of “humiliating themselves” and engaging in “Orwellian performances” during the drawn-out legal battle composed of “pointless court proceedings.”
He told reporters on Jan. 16 that he believed Djokovic’s treatment was largely politically motivated because of the upcoming federal election.
The Serbian government did not reference the tennis player in its announcement. Instead, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said the government had sided with environmental groups who had been against the $2.4 billion USD Jadar lithium project.
“All decisions and all licenses have been annulled,” said Brnabic in her statement. “As far as project Jadar is concerned, this is an end.”
The mine would have made Rio Tinto one of the world’s largest producers of lithium which is used in batteries for solar and electric cars. It was expected to produce enough raw materials for 1 million electric vehicles as well as boric acid and sulfate, used in household products like ceramics and detergents.
Thousands of Serbians demonstrated against the mine in recent months. They took to the streets and blocked main roads in cities across the country, including the capital Belgrade and the country’s second-largest city Novi Sad.
The protestors were concerned that the mine, which would have been near Loznica, may cause irreversible damages to the landscape and could contaminate the region’s water supply.
“Djokovic, who left Australia on Sunday for Dubai, had himself voiced his support for ‘clean air’ in a December Instagram story post,” reports the Daily Mail, noting he had shared images of environmental protests with his supporters online.
Prior to the Serbia government’s announcement, Rio Tinto had announced a one-year delay to the projects because it had not received important approvals from the Serbian government.
Brnabic had said the company had not supplied sufficient information to local communities about the projects. Rio disagreed in a statement and said it “it had always operated in compliance” within national laws.