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Bor Mining and Smelting Complex (Serbia Zijin Copper)

Bor, Majdanpek, Krivelj, and Oštrelj, Republic of Serbia
Updated on 14 November 2023.
The Bor mining and smelting complex in eastern Serbia is the country’s largest mining operation and one of its top exporters, employing thousands of miners to extract copper and gold. Following the Serbian Government’s efforts to privatise the former industrial giant RTB Bor (Mining and Smelting Complex Bor), China’s Zijin Mining Group became the owner of 63 per cent of the company’s sites in 2018. While presented as a solution for the region’s social and economic problems, Zijin’s investment has been marred by accelerated environmental destruction, lack of transparency, problematic relations with political elites, manipulation of Serbia’s legal framework, and state repression of protests in the mining region.

Basic Information

Chinese name: 塞尔维亚 紫金铜业有限公司 / 博尔铜矿
Location: Bor, Majdanpek, Krivelj, and Oštrelj (Republic of Serbia).
Type of Project: Extractive
Project Developer(s): Serbia Zijin Copper DOO Bor, a joint venture between Zijin (Europe) International Mining Company Limited, Hong Kong (63 per cent ownership), and the Republic of Serbia (37 per cent ownership).
Known Contractors: Jinshan Construction DOO Bor; JCHX Kinsey Mining Construction DOO Bor; Hongda Lianshao Mining DOO Bor; Serbia Zijin Construction DOO Bor (subsidiary of Serbia Zijin Copper DOO Bor); Balkan Zijin Resources DOO Beograd (subsidiary of Zijin [Hong Kong] Resources Limited); Tiejiuju Engineering & Construction DOO Beograd-Savski Venac.
Financier: n/a
Cost: 1.46 billion USD
Project Status: Operational

Project Outline

  • Serbia Zijin Copper DOO Bor is a joint venture between Zijin Mining Group, a leading multinational mining group headquartered in Longyan, Fujian Province, and the Serbian Government as a minority shareholder. According to the company’s website, Zijin is ‘engaged in the global exploration and development of copper, gold, zinc and lithium, as well as engineering and technological research’.
  • Serbia Zijin Copper is continuously expanding its extractive work in eastern Serbia, an area historically known to be rich in mineral reserves but that has in recent decades been marked by impoverishment and depopulation.
  • Investment by the Chinese mining leader came after years of unsuccessful efforts by the Serbian Government to restructure and privatise the socialist industrial giant Mining and Smelting Basin Bor (commonly known as RTB Bor). This contributed to the creation and political utilisation of a narrative of ‘the Chinese coming to our rescue’ by the Serbian Government, which has been led by the Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska Napredna Stranka or SNS) of President Aleksandar Vučić since 2014.
  • A strategic partnership agreement between the Serbian Government and Zijin Mining Group was signed in September 2018. In December of that year, Zijin Mining Group became the owner of 63 per cent of RTB Bor, which was then renamed Serbia Zijin Copper. The unflinching support of the Serbian Government has significantly contributed to the expansion of the project.

On 17 September 2018, the group signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Government of the Republic of Serbia on the acquisition of Mining and Smelting Basin Bor (henceforth RTB Bor), situated in the east of the country. In December 2018, Serbia Zijin Copper—a firm jointly owned by Zijin (Europe) International Mining Company Limited, Hong Kong (with 63 per cent ownership), and the Republic of Serbia (with a 37 per cent stake)—became the owner of RTB Bor by proposing a 1.26 billion USD business plan that included an obligatory capital increase of 350 million USD, in addition to a pledge to pay off 200 million USD of RTB Bor’s outstanding debts. The Serbian Government retained a 37 per cent stake in the company.

The investment by the leading Chinese miner came after years of unsuccessful efforts by the Serbian Government to restructure and privatise RTB Bor. Zijin’s arrival had been anticipated years before its acquisition in 2018. In 2016, then prime minister Aleksandar Vučić told the media he would kneel before Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang to urge China’s most powerful companies to take over RTB Bor. In 2017, he ramped up the rhetoric, saying that if the government could close an agreement, he would celebrate by jumping into the Sava or Danube rivers in front of the media. All of this contributed to the creation of a narrative of ‘the Chinese coming to our rescue’ by the Serbian Government, which has been led by President Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska Napredna Stranka or SNS) since 2012.

The unflinching support of the Serbian Government has significantly contributed to the expansion of the project. Serbia Zijin Copper and a few local and Chinese subcontractors are now expanding the extractive work in eastern Serbia, an area historically known to be rich in mineral reserves. The multi-ethnic region is home to the indigenous Vlach/Romanian minority, as well as those who migrated from other parts of the former Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the 1990s, the region has faced high rates of depopulation and impoverishment. There is ongoing controversy over the ethnic identity of the Vlach/Romanian population, but, as local inhabitants and activists often mentioned to us, the ethnic mix is perceived as one of the important factors influencing the political and economic dynamics in the region given the Vlachs’ lack of representation in the central government (at the time of writing in November 2023, there is no representative of the Vlach/Romanian population sitting in the Serbian parliament). The National Council of the Vlach Ethnic Minority has been silent about Zijin’s activities in the region, an underlying reason for which could be that, as members of other minority councils allege, national councils of ethnic minorities are influenced by the governing SNS party, which is the main supporter of Zijin’s operations in the area.

By February 2022, Zijin Copper had invested about 1 billion USD in its mining projects in Serbia. The Serbian Government and local ruling-party elites have presented Zijin’s activities as ‘the solution’ for the region’s problems. However, the company’s activities have been controversial due to a lack of transparency, environmental impacts, labour issues, weak compliance with Serbia’s legal framework, and the company’s involvement with the Serbian authorities’ violent treatment of local activists who are alleging Zijin’s mining operations are illegal.

Serbia Zijin Copper is organised into five branches:

  1. Serbia Zijin Copper Branch RBB, which includes the Veliki Krivelj Copper Mine, Jama Copper Mine, Jama–Borska Reka Copper Mine, Cerovo Copper Mine, Krivelj Quarry Factory, and Zagrađe Lime Factory. RBB also runs two ore-processing units: Flotation Factory Veliki Krivelj and Flotation Factory Bor.
  2. Majdanpek Copper Mines (RBM), which includes the North Pit, South Pit, and the Majdanpek Flotation Plant.
  3. Smelter and Refinery (TIR), which includes the following operation units: smelter, electrolysis, sulphuric acid production, transportation, and energy.
  4. Electromechanical Maintenance (EMO).
  5. Copper Testing Centre (Laboratory).

Based on data extracted from the CompanyWall database, the reported income of Serbia Zijin Copper was 57 billion RSD (489 million EUR) in 2019; 76 billion RSD (650 million EUR) in 2020; 126 billion RSD (more than 1 billion EUR) in 2021; and 113 billion RSD (970 million EUR) in 2022. According to official company reports, Serbia Zijin Copper’s reserves include 10.44 million tonnes of copper, with a 0.43 per cent copper content per tonne of ore, and 389 tonnes of gold, with an average 0.18 grams of gold per tonne.

TABLE 1: Copper and Gold Production Levels by Serbia Zijin Copper 2019–22

Copper (t)43,550 (electrolytic copper)52,207 (46,937 electrolytic copper)66,031 (58,344 electrolytic copper)92,977 (24,665 tonnes of electrolytic copper)
Gold (kg)n/a1,5501,1652,560

However, the company has not been transparent about the concentration levels of the unprocessed ore being transported by rail to the Croatian Port of Split, where the ore is loaded onto ships and transported to China or ‘markets all around the world’. As a media report from Croatia revealed in February 2022, the deal between Zijin and the Port of Split was that until the end of 2022, there would be 15 wagons, or 5,000 tonnes, of ore transported to and from Split daily.

There are also no data about the content of the ore being transported from Zijin’s mines to the Montenegrin Port of Bar. As the media reported, the port’s management signed an agreement with Zijin Bor in June 2021 at a meeting attended by representatives of the Zijin group, Serbia Cargo, Trans Cargo Logistic, Montecargo, Luka Bar AD, as well as the Montenegrin State Secretary for Transport and Maritime Affairs in the Ministry of Capital Investments, Zoran Radunović. The agreement established that by the end of 2024 there would be nearly 2 million tonnes of copper concentrate from Zijin arriving in Montenegro by rail, which would then be shipped to unspecified destinations through the Port of Bar. As the late CEO of the Port of Bar Vladan Vučelić stated: ‘In 2023 and 2024 and in the years to follow, with the business partnership from Bor alone, we will realise half the amount of the reloading that the Port realised last year and in previous years.’ He also announced that the port anticipated profits of more than 10 million EUR from this deal alone.

In May 2023, a delegation from Zijin conducted a two-day visit to the Port of Bar, where they met with representatives of the same companies that had participated in the 2021 meeting. On this occasion, Vice-President of Zijin Global Lin Hongying expressed her ‘great pleasure’ with the visit to Montenegro and the potential of the Port of Bar. Lin announced Zijin Group’s plans to significantly increase the volume of their operations in Bor and said Zijin was ready to ‘significantly participate in all investments which would improve the efficiency and the speed of logistics and transportation’.

In July 2022 Zijin said:

[T]he whole amount of the produced gold, according to Serbian laws, must first be offered to the National Bank of Serbia [NBS], and only in the event that it refuses to buy it at the stock market price, we may ask for a permit for export. This did not happen so far, which means that the gold produced in this company remains in Serbia.

When as a part of our research we contacted the NBS in July 2023, we received an incomplete answer about the laws and regulations applying to Zijin and the obligations related to its mining operations in Bor and Majdanpek. The NBS told us that ‘in accordance with the regulations and the contract’, it has ‘the right of pre-emption of gold produced by that company, in the form of gold bars’. They also added that since 2018 they had purchased from Zijin Copper 6,018 kilograms of gold (480 gold bars). The emphasis on the fact that it is gold bars that Zijin is obliged to offer (and report as produced) to Serbian institutions suggests that unspecified ‘regulations and contracts’ do not include state control over unprocessed ore, which Zijin is free to sell elsewhere. Hence, in exporting unprocessed ore—that is, unprocessed copper and gold concentrates—the company avoids its obligation to offer for sale gold bars made from the concentrate extracted in the Bor and Majdanpek mines to the NBS at the stock market price. At the same time, data about the extent of mineral exploitation and overall profits from Zijin’s operations in Serbia remain rather unclear.

Project Impacts

  • Employment and labour rights: Serbia Zijin Copper reportedly employs 5,950 workers, but information about non-local workers is limited, as is the number of those employed in the companies subcontracted by Zijin. Zijin’s management and national and local officials often emphasise how their activities and those of their subcontractors bring economic benefits to the inhabitants of Bor and Majdanpek. However, local trade unions have been engaged since 2021 in struggles over a new collective agreement.
  • Environment: The long-running problem of air pollution in the city of Bor was improved by the activation of a new smelter in 2015. Pollution has, however, been increasing again since Zijin’s takeover of RTB Bor, with worrying growth in sulphur dioxide emissions and in the level of arsenic in PM10 (particulate matter). Pollution data for Majdanpek are scarce, as are measurements of pollution in non-urban areas around both Bor and Majdanpek that are under the direct influence of the accelerated mining operations of Zijin and its related companies.
  • Land: Due to the increase in mining capacity, in February 2022, the Ministry of Mining and Energy supported a plan to relocate the village of Veliki Krivelj, but so far the process of relocation is still under negotiation.
  • Local community: Reactions from the local community are strikingly divided. Members of the municipal governments and those supporting the ruling party and the president generally hold very favourable views of the presence of Zijin and its subsidiaries. The employees of the mining companies and those whose livelihoods depend on the operation of Zijin are not expressing their views publicly. Local civil groups in Bor and Majdanpek, however, have been vocal about the illegality of the privileges enjoyed by Zijin, the collusion of local politicians in these processes, and the environmental damage created by excessive mining activity. In addition, the area of the project is populated by the indigenous Vlach/Romanian ethnic minority, which, as claimed by local inhabitants and activists, is one of the factors influencing the political and economic dynamics in the region due to the lack of Vlach political representation in central government institutions.
  • Armed conflict and governance: In June 2022, Zijin began blasting Starica Mountain, a natural barrier between the town of Majdanpek and the site of the open-pit mine. As shown by our interviews, digital ethnography, and participant observation of developments on the ground, a grassroots group of activists called Ne Dam/Nu Dau (‘I Do Not Give/I Do Not Allow’) launched a series of protests requesting a halt to the blasting operations at Starica and demanding to know the precise boundaries of the mine site. Members of Ne Dam/Nu Dau initially set themselves up as human shields at the blasting site at the mountain top and engaged in heated discussions in the municipal assembly, as well as extensively sharing information on social media. The situation escalated sharply after September 2022, when the local police accused Ne Dam/Nu Dauactivists of setting fire to a drilling machine owned by a subcontractor of Zijin and of beating up a Chinese worker. The activists identified as the leaders of the protests were placed in custody, with several testifying to police beatings and brutality, as well as the extraction of false statements and confessions. Throughout, the municipal government in Majdanpek has defended and justified the ‘amelioration’ of the mountain, as Zijin management calls the blasting. Statements by Zijin and the municipal government are in complete alignment, suggesting a high level of coordination between the company and the local administration.
View of the tailing pond in Veliki Krivelj from a distance, spring 2022. Photo by Dejan Lazar.
View on the open pit mine in Veliki Krivelj from a distance, spring 2022. Photo by Dejan Lazar.

Economic Impact and Labour Issues

According to public data, in 2022 Serbia Zijin Copper DOO Bor had 5,724 employees, and the average monthly salary was 100,000 RSD (900 USD). Both Zijin management and local and national officials often emphasise how the company’s activities benefit the inhabitants of Bor and Majdanpek. The official statistics from the end of 2022 show that the average net income in September 2022 was 76,850 RSD (roughly 690 USD) in Majdanpek and 88,961 RSD (800 USD) in Bor, both of which are higher than the national average net income, which is reported to be 74,981 RSD (approximately 675 USD). However, the higher average incomes in Bor and Majdanpek do not necessarily translate to a higher quality of living for the towns’ inhabitants. For example, even though the Bor municipal government’s budget has increased due to Zijin’s investment, the authorities failed to properly manage the local heating system, resulting in a suspension of heating provision during the winter of 2023 that left private homes, hospitals, and schools unheated at a time when the temperature dropped below zero.

When it comes to labour issues, local and workers from outside have faced increasingly different conditions. Before the sale of RTB Bor, a collective agreement was signed that stated that the new buyer would not be allowed to enforce a new collective agreement that gave fewer rights than the current one. This collective agreement expired on 21 June 2021 and Zijin offered a new agreement that drastically reduced the rights of workers and cut their wages. According to the Nezavisnost (‘Independence’) union, Zijin removed a provision guaranteeing the indexing of salaries to the decisions of the Social and Economic Council of the Serbian Government. The company also wanted to enforce work performance scoring to determine earnings at the end of each year—a provision in conflict with Serbia’s Labour Law, which mandates that there must be equal pay for jobs of the same level and the same qualification structure. Also, the unions announced that the company intended to reduce compensation for nightshift, overtime, holiday, and weekend work, decreasing an average monthly salary of 875 USD by 240–330 USD. Union representatives also claimed the collective agreement discriminated against older workers close to retirement by assigning them to the lowest paid jobs—such as, for women, gardeners, and for men, samplers, transport workers, and so on. At the same time, they alleged that Zijin would not hire new workers over 40 years of age.

The company denied the union’s claims and said it had already changed its rules of procedure ‘in accordance with a great number of the requests of the trade unions’. Management also noted it had met union demands on holiday and paid leave, increased wages, severance pay on retirement, and other awards, and said that salaries would be increased, not reduced.

After negotiations between the trade union, the Ministry of Mining and Energy, and Zijin, new bylaws were adopted that were identical to those in the previous collective agreement, while the collective agreement itself was left to be negotiated between the company and workers. During negotiations, the company unilaterally proposed a new collective agreement that, as the workers and the unions reiterated, would decrease the rights and pay of employees. In late December 2022, after workers protested in front of the company’s central offices, new rules were introduced that did increase workers’ rights to some extent but did not meet other crucial demands. In January 2023, the unions organised a protest walk in Bor, after which representatives told the press that the company was ‘making lists’ of the employees who took part in public protests to intimidate them and discourage others from joining the demonstrations. Later that month, workers from Bor staged an eight-hour blockade of the company’s transportation points, while workers in Majdanpek organised their first protest. In early February, with mediation by government representatives, an agreement was finally reached on a new collective agreement.

Far less is known about the conditions for foreign workers, who are presumably from China—though even this is not confirmed. Official figures indicated that, as of 15 March 2023, there were 5,300 Chinese nationals residing in Bor, though this number is likely inaccurate due to undeclared departures and the presence of Chinese nationals who have not formalised their stay in Serbia. As our ethnographic fieldwork and experience found, the majority of foreign workers live in secluded barracks on the outskirts of the towns of Bor and Majdanpek. On several occasions, Serbian media reported on the poor living and working conditions of the workers and their protests during the Covid-19 pandemic. The media also reported on mass street brawls involving Chinese workers employed by the subcontractor Hongda in June 2022. The authorities only became involved after footage of the street fighting went public, in September 2022. According to local media reports, a Chinese citizen suspected of causing the fight had been placed under house arrest, while seven other participants were expelled from Serbia.

Pollution and Other Environmental Issues

The acquisition of RTB Bor initially went smoothly and did not trigger any major social conflicts. The earliest protest in front of the headquarters of Zijin was in May 2019 by the inhabitants of Veliki Krivelj, a village endangered by the mine even before the arrival of the foreign investor. The protest was about the environmental, financial, and safety concerns of the villagers in relation to the Cerovo and Veliki Krivelj open-pit mines. The villagers requested the local authorities become involved in the development of the Special Spatial Plan of the Bor–Majdanpek Ore Basin and demanded access to the documentation submitted by RTB to Zijin about their obligations towards village residents.

In the city of Bor itself, the first major dissent was related to the increased concentration of PM10 particulates and sulphur dioxide. The Bor smelter, a much celebrated 250-million-EUR investment by the Government of Serbia, was inaugurated in 2014 by Blagoje Spaskovski, then director of RTB Bor, and Aleksandar Vučić, then prime minister. Upon the acquisition of RTB Bor, Serbia Zijin Copper increased production considerably, resulting in significant pollution during the summer of 2019. The first pollution protest was organised in July 2019. A second occurred in October the same year, when protesters blocked access to Zijin’s headquarters in Bor. A politically diverse group of local actors—including city assembly member Saša Stanković from the right-wing Dveri political party, president of the civic association ‘Loud for Youth’ Vladimir Stojičević, and member of the civic association ‘The Choice Exists’ Marko Janjić, together with president of the local branch of the Party of Freedom and Justice Irena Živković—filed a criminal complaint against Bor Mayor Aleksandar Milikić, then minister of ecology Goran Trivan, as well as others from Zijin. However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, public gatherings were limited, and no protests have taken place since March 2020.

According to Serbian regulations on air pollution, the average daily limit of 125 micrograms (μg) of sulphur dioxide per cubic metre may be exceeded only three days in a year. Pollution exceeding this limit is unlawful. The same regulation allows a maximum of 24 hours in a year when the higher limit of 350 μg of sulphur dioxide per cubic metre may be exceeded. In Table 2, cells in red denote the period when Zijin was operating the mine, showing the rapid deterioration in air quality.

TABLE 2: Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) Levels in Bor, City Park Measuring Station

YearMean annual value of SO2Number of days SO2 > 125 μg/cu m (3 days allowed)Number of hours SO2 > 350 μg/cu m (24 hours allowed)Maximum mean daily value of SO2  

A particularly grave problem is the amount of arsenic in PM10. Based on readings performed at measuring stations, there has been a noticeable increase in the concentration of arsenic particles in the air since the arrival of the Chinese investor. Table 3 shows the yearly concentration of arsenic in suspended PM10.

TABLE 3: Concentration of Arsenic Particles in the Air Measured by PM10 Measurement Stations

Measuring stationAAV  MDV  AAV  MDV  AAV  MDV  AAV  MDV  AAV  MDV  AAV  MDV  
Bor 1: Gradski Park66>35073,7326,8116,71727,86264843435.71088.4
Bor 2: IRM72>35056,8420,931,7267,756493n/an/an/an/a
Bor: Jugopetroln/an/an/an/a5544771,52275401.903313148501100.6

* AAV = Average annual value (nanogram/cu m); MDV = Maximum daily value (nanogram/cu m).

The target average annual value according to Serbia’s Regulation on Monitoring Conditions and Air Quality Requirements is 6 nanograms (ng) per cubic metre. Although there has been no official explanation for the increase in arsenic concentrations, academic circles see it as a complex issue. In addition to the smelter, the tailings ponds are also considered to be important factors in pollution. Because ore in the Timok metallogenic zone, of which Bor is a part, has higher than usual concentrations of arsenic, any increase in production will release more arsenic into the environment. Zijin Copper continues to increase the capacity of its excavations, as well as the flotation plants, and the smelter. Zijin is now expanding the capacity of the smelter from 80,000 tonnes to 150,000–200,000 tonnes of ore per year. As the head of the Department of Environmental Protection at the Technical Faculty in Bor, Professor Snežana Šerbula, explained: ‘In Bor, we have been poisoned for years because arsenopyrite is an adjoining mineral of the copper ore. The bigger the production in Bor is, [and] the more copper, gold, precious metals we export, the bigger the concentration of arsenic will be in the air.’

In the case of Majdanpek, where the copper and gold mine is situated, there is less information about environmental issues and the ways in which the work of Zijin has impacted local pollution levels and population health. One source of information is a brief mention of pollution in Majdanpek by a recent studyp. 84 published by the then state-run Jaroslav Černi Water Institute. This study does not focus directly on Majdanpek but includes a section explaining that the local municipality can be classified as having a high level of pollution, especially of sulphur dioxide, soot, and suspended particulate matter. The study finds that the concentrations of sulphur dioxide are above the permissible limits set by the World Health Organization for 100 days every year and adds that, while the metal concentration in suspended dust is generally within the allowed limits, and mercury, manganese, and nickel have not been detected, ‘arsenic occurs in concentrations that are 73 to 102 times higher than permitted on almost all measuring stations. The presence of all above-mentioned materials is the result of exploitation of raw mineral materials.’ In terms of soil quality in Majdanpek, the studyp. 85  lists physical soil degradation by mining and pollution from dust coming from the surface mines and mining waste disposal sites.

The non-urban areas around Bor and Majdanpek are also directly affected by the accelerated mining operations of Zijin and its related companies. In February 2022, the residents of Veliki Krivelj lined up along the road leading to the mine’s flotation plant, and booed Zijin’s director because of constant blasting during the night; they complained that Zijin had been operating without a licence, disrespecting the Constitution of Serbia, and destroying local infrastructure through its activities. In May 2022, ore pulp was spilled in the bed of the Kriveljska River. Although the pollution and material damage were visible to the naked eye, Bor Mayor Aleksandar Milikić denied there had been any environmental or physical damage. The village of Oštrelj meanwhile is threatened by the increased height of the tailings dam, and villagers have noted deterioration in their health, especially respiratory problems, as well as an increase in the number of locals with cancer. Zijin’s management announced a plan for the greening of the dam and flotation tailings, but the initiative has been greeted by experts as a positive but insufficient measure.

Despite all this, statements from Zijin’s management, the leaders of the municipal governments of Bor and Majdanpek, and Serbian government officials have repeatedly emphasised only the positive effects of Zijin’s presence in the region. To mention but one statement by Bor’s mayor, in early 2022: ‘A new history of mining and the future of the town is being built … In the last four years, we experienced ecological and economic development.’ The praise goes both ways. During a conversation in 2019 with President Vučić, Zijin’s president emphasised that in the year since the acquisition of RTB Bor, Serbia had become ‘the best of 11 countries in which this company invests and that it makes great progress every month’.

Even though it has repeatedly breached environmental laws, Zijin has been fined on only two occasions. In October 2020, Zijin Copper and the company officials responsible were convicted, in the first instance, by the Commercial Court in Zaječar for pollution caused in 2019 and the beginning of 2020. The company was fined 400,000 RSD (3,600 USD), while the responsible person from the smelter facility was fined 50,000 RSD (450 USD). Both parties appealed the ruling, which resulted in a verdict by the Commercial Court of Appeal in November 2021 that deemed the original fine too mild and ordered Zijin Copper to pay 1 million RSD (9,150 USD). The second fine came in 2022, when the Commercial Court in Zaječar fined Zijin Copper 200,000 RSD (1,800 USD) and the responsible person 30,000 RSD (280 USD) for initiating work on the expansion of the smelter’s capacity without conducting a mandatory environmental impact assessment. In the same process, the company was also found to have carried out activities without an ‘integrated permit’—the most important environmental protection permit in the Serbian legal system. For this offence, the company was fined 250,000 RSD (2,250 USD) and the responsible person 30,000 RSD (280 USD). Considering Zijin’s income in Serbia has topped 1 billion USD, the fines are unlikely to have the intended deterrent effect.

The lenience may be linked to a controversial section of the Strategic Partnership Agreement signed between the Republic of Serbia, the former RTB Bor, and Zijin Mining. Section 7.5 of the agreement, under the title ‘Obligations of the Republic of Serbia’, states that the Serbian state will assist the company to prepare an Ecological Action Plan (which still does not exist) and invest all efforts to ensure the company will not be sanctioned or face fines for noncompliance with environmental protection standards during the transitional period.

Aerial view of Bor with old tailing ponds, July 2023. Photo by Dejan Lazar.
Aerial view of Bor and the smelter plant, autumn 2021. Photo by Dejan Lazar.
View of the old open pit mine near Bor from a distance, July 2023. Photo by Dejan Lazar.

Conflicts with Local Activists

The expansion of the Veliki Krivelj surface mine requires the relocation of the eponymous village, with a population of about 1,300 people, as well as the expropriation of villagers’ land. Locals have complained about the poor communication from the company. In February 2022, the Ministry of Mining and Energy endorsed the plan to relocate the village and, in May 2022, it submitted the resettlement plan to the local community. At the time of writing in early November 2023, the process of relocation is still in its early stages.

Zijin’s expansion of mining operations has met fierce resistance in Majdanpek since June 2022, when the company began blasting Starica Mountain, which forms a natural barrier between the town of Majdanpek and the mine site. Local grassroot activist group Ne Dam/Nu Dau movement installed an improvised camp on the mountain to stop Zijin from what they claimed was illegal blasting that would further endanger the health of the town’s inhabitants. Local activists and politicians outside the ruling party have been requesting in vain clarity about the exact boundaries of the mine.

Since the start of the protests, Zijin’s management, local SNS-aligned politicians, and Serbian government officials have argued that they are not ‘blasting’ the mountain, but rather ‘ameliorating’ it to protect the local population. This explanation did not convince the activists, who continued to occupy the mountain over the summer of 2022 and insisted on access to the legal documents on landownership and those relating to mine planning and approval.

In September 2022, after a visit by then Serbian Minister of Mining and Energy Zorana Mihajlović, who supported Zijin management, the situation escalated sharply. A drilling machine owned by Jinshan Construction, a Zijin subcontractor, was set on fire and its Chinese operator allegedly beaten, which the local police blamed on the Ne Dam/Nu Dauactivists. The police detained the leaders of the protests and charged them with ‘jeopardising security and instigating national, racial, and religious hatred and hostility’. The activists rejected the charges and argued it was a politically motivated legal prosecution to clear the way for a resumption of blasting on the mountain. The activists’ argument seems to be supported by the fact that this criminal charge has rarely been used in Serbia—even though it could cover widespread phenomena such as hate speech, violence, and instigation of national, racial, and religious hostility. In addition, some activists testified that during questioning they were subjected to police brutality and were forced to sign false statements and confessions.

The activists also suffered physical violence on the mountain during the summer of 2022, when they were threatened and harassed by members of a private security company hired by the subcontractor Jinshan. In late December 2022, after not being paid for their work, members of this private security company reached out to the media. They said they had been hired to beat people (reportedly mostly those of Roma ethnicity) who were trespassing on Zijin-owned land and were encouraged ‘to truncheon’ and use force to compel the activists to move their improvised camp 300 metres away, so the company could continue blasting work. As one of the security workers testified in front of the media, they were paid 100 EUR per beating and asked to hand over the videos of the violence to their superiors.

At the time of writing in the northern autumn of 2023, the blasting of Starica Mountain continues, with one entire ridge already removed. The Chinese head of the Majdanpek branch of Serbia Zijin Copper stated that ‘the landslide zone of the Mountain Starica is still being treated, but land recultivation has already begun on the parts of the mountain that have been improved’. He also claimed that ‘the mountaintop has already been greened, [and] now the grass there is just like on a football field’. What is still missing are official documents showing the boundaries of the mine, public information and debates about the impacts of removing the natural barrier between the town and the open mine pit, as well as plans for the future of the town.

A legal breakthrough for the activists came at the end of June 2023 when a local court confirmed what the activists had claimed from the beginning: that cadastral plot no. 624/1—a large piece of land that includes parts of Starica Mountain and that Zijin had claimed as its own—was owned by the state and not by the Chinese mining giant. In addition, in mid July 2023, the Administrative Court in Belgrade, acting on a lawsuit by the Regulatory Institute for Renewable Energy and the Environment, annulled the decision by the Government of Serbia allowing Zijin Copper to drastically expand the flotation plant capacity of the copper mine in Majdanpek without assessing its environmental impact.

At the time of writing in early November 2023, the activists have been released from house arrest and their electronic police surveillance and movement restrictions have ended, but the charges against them for ‘jeopardising security and instigating national, racial, and religious hatred and hostility’ have not been dropped.

In-Depth Sources

  • Mndra mja [My Beautiful One], documentary by Rade Đurić. Link.
  • Slike života. Poslednja tvrdjava Carica ili Starica: Последња тврђава Старица или Царица [The Pictures of Life. The Last Fortress: The Empress or the Old Lady], Documentary TV show by Dejan Radulović (N1, 2002). Link.
  • Slike života. Plamen na kamenu Starice [The Pictures of Life. Flame on the Stone of the Starica Mountain],Documentary TV show by Dejan Radulović (N1, 2002). Link.
  • Slike zivota: Rec Starice [The Pictures of Life: The Word of the Starica Mountain], Documentary TV show by Dejan Radulović (N1, 2023). Link.

Updated on 14 November 2023.

Dušica Ristivojević is a senior researcher affiliated with the China studies team at the University of Helsinki and Central European Institute of Asian Studies. Her research analyses the longue durée dynamics of China’s global interactions, media, and social organising in and outside China. She is finishing a book on the transnational links of China’s political movements and is observing China’s presence in Europe’s eastern peripheries in the fields of dirty industry and digital technology.

Dejan Lazar is a mining engineer and Vice-President of the citizens’ group ‘Loud for the Youth’ (Glasno za omladinu), which is represented in Bor’s local parliament. He recently obtained his master’s degree in Underground Mining from the University of Belgrade.