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Hundreds of environmental demonstrators block the main highway in Belgrade, Serbia, on Nov. 27. Photo: Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of protesters across Serbia blocked roadways and bridges for the third consecutive weekend over the government's environmental policies, including a proposal for a new lithium mine that activists say would wreak havoc on the country's already extremely polluted environment.

Why it matters: These are some of the largest anti-government protests President Aleksandar Vučić's government has seen in years, and come ahead of April's general election.

Driving the news: The protests were initially prompted by two recently adopted laws that would have lowered the country's referendum threshold and allowed the state to more quickly acquire private property through expropriation, essentially paving the way for the expansion of foreign mining projects, according to Srđan Cvijić, a senior policy analyst at the Open Society Foundation.

  • Those projects, protesters say, could include a new lithium mine run by Anglo-Australian company Rio Tinto in western Serbia.
  • The protests come amid deepening environmental concerns in Serbia. A 2019 report from the Global Alliance for Health and Pollution found that Serbia has the highest number of deaths from pollution in Europe, and ranks ninth in the world.

Vučić last week agreed to withdraw and amend the controversial laws.

  • "We have to see if we want that mine or not, and there should be a public debate about it," Vučić said in a national address. "I want to calm people down and tell them that we are on your side and we will not make any decisions without you."

Yes, but: The government's decision to withdraw the laws is likely "a reaction to the declining support for the ruling party ahead of the elections in the spring next year," Cvijić told Axios.

  • "It is possible that the government will delay the adoption of the said law until the April elections are over to avoid paying the price of the social mobilization," he added.
  • That reality has continued to galvanize protesters, Cvijić noted.
A tweet previously embedded here has been deleted or was tweeted from an account that has been suspended or deleted.

Between the lines: While Serbia is no stranger to mass protests, the latest wave of demonstrations is unique in how it has united a wide spectrum of opposition and citizen groups, analysts and observers say.

  • "This is a big difference and this is why the regime feels threatened," Cvijić said.
  • Bojan Simišić, from the group Eko Straža, which has helped organize protests, told local media last month that wide-ranging organizations "are in solidarity. Ecological groups have united. These are not different protests."
  • Activist Savo Manojlović echoed Straža, tweeting, "Protests for all. Leftists bothered by right-wingers can put up a blockade at a different location. ... Divide yourselves later."

What's next: It's unclear how long the protests will continue. While this past weekend's rallies were smaller than the previous demonstrations, groups have vowed to continue to put pressure on the government and demand guarantees that the lithium mine project will not move forward.

  • “There will be no peace until exploitation of lithium is banned and Rio Tinto sent away from Serbia,” Aleksandar Jovanovic, one of the organizers, told AP on Saturday.

Go deeper

Updated Jan 7, 2022 - World

Kazakhstan's president orders troops to "shoot to kill" protesters

Protests in Almaty on Wednesday. Photo: Abduaziz Madyarov/AFP via Getty

Kazakhstan's president said in a televised speech Friday that he ordered security forces to "shoot to kill without warning" in an attempt to forcibly suppress an unexpected uprising, adding that those who failed to surrender "need to be destroyed."

Why it matters: "Dozens" of protesters have been killed and around 4,000 arrested, according to the government. At least 18 security forces have also been killed. A phone and internet blackout has made it virtually impossible to track events nationally, but the order will likely result in more deaths.

Scoop: Stephanie Ruhle to replace Brian Williams on MSNBC

Photo: Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

MSNBC will soon announce plans to move morning anchor Stephanie Ruhle to the 11 pm ET hour that Brian Williams turned into an elite destination, two sources familiar with the move tell Axios.

Details: The 9 am ET hour, currently hosted by Ruhle, will become part of MSNBC's flagship morning show, "Morning Joe," which currently runs from 6 am to 9 am ET.

Oath Keepers leader denied bail on Capitol riot sedition charge

Oath Keepers co-founder Elmer Stewart Rhodes. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP

A federal judge ordered Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes to remain jailed Wednesday until trial on charges stemming from the Capitol riot.

Why it matters: The judge said the most prominent far-right figure charged in the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection had access to weapons and his alleged "continued advocacy for violence against the federal government" gave credence to prosecutors' view that, if released, Rhodes could endanger others.