137 Years After Construction Began, Spanish Church Gets Building Permit

After 137 years of construction, overseen by 10 architects, one of Spain’s tourist attractions finally has been granted a building permit. 

La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s modernist masterpiece, was granted the permit in what may be a new high mark for bureaucratic sluggishness. 

Janet Sanz head of the Barcelona’s urban planning said the city council had finally managed to “resolve a historical anomaly in the city — that an emblematic monument like the Sagrada Familia… didn’t have a building permit, that it was being constructed illegally.”

The Sagrada Familia foundation said it hopes to finish construction by 2026, to coincide with the 100th anniversary of chief architect Antoni Gaudí’s death. 

Even though construction of the neo-Gothic church began in 1882, authorities only discovered in 2016 that it never had a building permit, although Gaudi had applied for one. 

Gaudi died after being hit by a tram when only one of the church’s facades was finished.

Since then, 10 architects have continued his work, based on Gaudi’s plaster models, and photos and publications of his original drawings, which were destroyed in a fire during the Spanish Revolution. 

Every year more than 4.5 million people visit the basilica, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

When completed, its central tower will make La Sagrada Familia the tallest religious structure in Europe, at 172.5 meters, according to the builders.

Moldovan Court Ousts President, New Elections Called

Moldova has plunged deeper into political crisis after the Constitutional Court stripped pro-Russian President Igor Dodon of his power over his failure to form a new government after months of political deadlock.

The court on Sunday also appointed former Prime Minister Pavel Filip as interim president.

Filip immediately dissolved the parliament and called for snap elections on September 6 as thousands of his supporters gathered in the capital, Chisinau, for a rally.

Dodon’s Socialist Party had said on Saturday it was forming a coalition government, but the court ruled that the move had come a day after the 90-day deadline for forming a new government had passed.

The coalition has rejected the ruling, saying the deadline is three months rather than 90 days.

Dodon accused the court of being biased in favor of Filip’s Democratic Party and asked the international community to intervene.

 

“We have no choice but to appeal to the international community to mediate in the process of a peaceful transfer of power and/or to call on the people of Moldova for an unprecedented mobilization and peaceful protests,” Dodon said in a statement.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said Washington “calls on all Moldovan parties to show restraint and to agree on a path forward through political dialogue.”

“The February 24 parliamentary elections were competitive and respected fundamental rights,” she said in a statement on Sunday. “The will of the Moldovan people as expressed in those elections must be respected without interference.”

 

Boris Johnson to EU: I Won’t Pay Unless Deal Improved

Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is stepping up his campaign to be Britain’s next prime minister by challenging the European Union over Brexit terms.

Johnson told the Sunday Times he would refuse to pay the agreed-upon 39 billion-pound ($50 billion) divorce settlement unless the EU offers Britain a better withdrawal agreement than the one currently on the table.

 

The contest for leadership of the Conservative Party officially begins Monday. The post was vacated Friday by Prime Minister Theresa May, who will serve as a caretaker until a new leader is chosen and moves into 10 Downing Street.

 

The party expects to name its new leader in late July.

 

Johnson, the early frontrunner in a crowded field, told the newspaper he is the only contender who can triumph over the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

 

Johnson is a hard-line Brexit advocate who vows to take Britain out of the EU on the Oct. 31 deadline even if there is no deal in place.

 

He and other contenders say they can get better terms from EU leaders in Brussels than the deal that May agreed to but was unable to push through Parliament. Those failures led to her decision to resign before achieving her goal of delivering Brexit.

 

But EU officials have said they are not willing to change the terms of the deal May agreed to.

 

One of Johnson’s main rivals for the post, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, continued to be sidetracked Sunday by questions about his acknowledged cocaine use when he was a youthful journalist.

 

He told BBC Sunday that he was “fortunate” not to have gone to prison following his admission of cocaine use. He said he was “very, very aware” of the damage drugs can cause.

 

Nominations for the leadership post close Monday afternoon.

 

 

Search and Recovery Operations Continue After Dutch Boat Crash

Search and recovery operations continued in in the Danube River in Hungary’s capital Budapest on Sunday to help raise a sunken sightseeing boat with the help of a floating crane.

Hungarian rescue officials said Saturday that the tour boat is unlikely to be raised out of the water before Tuesday.

 

The Hableany (Mermaid) was carrying 33 South Koreans and a two-man Hungarian crew when it collided with a much larger cruise ship on the river in Budapest on May 29.

Seven South Koreans were rescued after the nighttime crash in heavy rain but eight of the passengers and the boat’s captain are still missing.

At least 19 people are confirmed dead.

 

Hungarian and South Korean divers have been working for days to prepare the Hableany to be raised off the river floor.

Dozens Detained In Kazakhstan as Nazarbaev’s Chosen Successor Set to Win Election

Police across Kazakhstan have detained dozens of protesters as the country holds a snap presidential election, with the chosen successor of authoritarian ex-President Nursultan Nazarbaev expected to win easily.

More than 100 protesters were detained in the in Astana Square in Kazakhstan’s largest city of Almaty as they were calling for a boycott of the election in which Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev is running against six government-approved candidates.

Several foreign and local journalists, including RFE/RL reporter Pyotr Trotsenko, were also briefly detained in Almaty.

Security measures have been stepped up in Almaty, with dozens of police officers deployed in Astana Square and elsewhere in the city, RFE/RL correspondents in Kazakhstan report.

In the capital, Nur-Sultan — newly renamed after the former president — police detained dozens of opposition supporters holding a protest rally near the Palace of Youth, as well as several journalists covering the event.

RFE/RL correspondent Sania Toiken is among those detained in the capital.

The protesters in Nur-Sultan were calling for free and fair elections and were holding blue balloons, a sign of support for a banned opposition group, Kazakhstan’s Democratic Choice (DVK).

The movement’s leader is Mukhtar Ablyazov, a vocal critic of Nazarbaev and his government, who lives in self-imposed exile in France. Ablyazov has urged people in the past to hold blue balloons at anti-government rallies.

Police have deployed about 10 buses near the Palace of Youth and also blocked the Respublika and Abai streets near at the city center.

Meanwhile, 20 protesters were detained in the southern city of Shymkent.

Most polling stations opened at 7 a.m. and will close at 8 p.m. on June 9. Some polls opened an hour earlier, and 65 stations outside the country are also taking ballots.

Toqaev, 66, was tapped by longtime authoritarian President Nazarbaev as his successor when he stepped down on March 19 after nearly 30 years leading the energy-rich country, the largest in Central Asia.

Russian state-run TASS news agency reported that Toqaev voted at a station in the Astana Opera House in the capital, Nur-Sultan.

“Our people are concerned about many social and economic issues,” he told reporters. “This is why elections are a good opportunity to decide who is going to lead the country, what our country will be like in the future.”

Toqaev, who is running against six government-approved candidates, said that the election “will be open and transparent.”

“At least, from the side of the government, we have done everything possible to achieve this,” Toqaev added.

The other six candidates are virtually unknown to voters and have little campaign or public support.

The early election, which was called by Toqaev on April 9 to avoid “political uncertainty,” is being criticized by Kazakh opposition activists an unfair and noncompetitive.

None of the elections held in Kazakhstan since it became independent in 1991 has been deemed free or fair by international organizations.

There have been an unusually large number of public demonstrations in Kazakhstan since Nazarbaev’s resignation, with protesters calling for political reforms and many urging voters to boycott the vote.

Many activists have been detained and given fines or jail sentences, while some young male activists have been suddenly drafted into the army.

Large groups of Kazakh mothers have held numerous rallies in recent months to demand increased social benefits and housing, underscoring a general dissatisfaction with the government seen in other demonstrations and civil meetings.

Despite officially stepping down as president, Nazarbaev holds many important political positions and still wields considerable power within the country and inside his political party, Nur-Otan, whose presidential candidate is Toqaev.

Nazarbaev’s reign was marked by economic progress fueled by plentiful reserves of oil and natural gas, but it was largely overshadowed by despotic rule that shut down independent media, suppressed protests, and trampled democratic norms.

Human Rights Watch wrote recently that Kazakhstan “heavily restricts” basic freedoms such as speech, religion, and assembly, while Freedom House calls the Kazakh government a “consolidated authoritarian regime.”

A career diplomat educated in Moscow and considered an expert on China, Toqaev has served as Kazakh prime minister, foreign minister, and chairman of the Senate. He also worked for the United Nations in Geneva in 2011-13.

Toqaev has said publicly that he will continue the same policies as Nazarbaev if elected as president.

In preelection moves likely aimed at consolidating support for Toqaev, the state recently increased salaries for government employees and hiked welfare payments.

Nazarbaev’s daughter, Darigha, replaced Toqaev as Senate leader in March and would be first in line to the presidency should anything happen to the president.

The six candidates permitted to run against Toqaev in the election are parliament deputies Jambyl Ahmetbekov and Dania Yespaeva, labor union leader Amangeldy Taspikhov, state sports executive Sadybek Tugel, scientist Toleutai Rahimbekov, and journalist Amirjan Qosanov.

Kazakhstan’s voters among the population of 18.7 million will vote at 238 polling stations nationwide as well as at the Kazakh Embassy in Moscow and consulates in St. Petersburg, Kazan, Astrakhan, and Omsk.

Aware of the uptick in anti-government protests since Nazarbaev stepped down, the deputy mayor of the Kazakh capital  — newly reminted Nur-Sultan, in honor of the former president — said authorities were prepared for any “provocations.”

“We are ready for any provocations [and are] working on different scenarios, but all this will be nipped in the bud as nothing must stand in the way of the voting,” Erlan Kanalimov told TASS.

Albania’s President Cancels Elections, Citing Tense Climate 

Albania’s president on Saturday canceled upcoming municipal elections, citing the need to reduce political tensions in the country. 

 

President Ilir Meta said he acted because “the actual circumstances do not provide necessary conditions for true, democratic, representative and all-inclusive elections” at the end of the month. The president said he would clarify his decision Monday. 

 

Thousands of Albanians who support the political opposition assembled for an anti-government protest on Saturday. Opposition parties planned to boycott the municipal elections and threatened to prevent them taking place. 

 

After sundown, smoke from tear gas and flares clouded the streets of Tirana. Some protesters hurled flares, firecrackers and Molotov cocktails at police officers outside the parliament building. Police responded with tear gas and water cannons.  

“This union [of people] imposed the annulment of the June 30 election,” Lulzim Basha, leader of the opposition Democratic Party, said, pledging to continue the battle. 

 

Speaking at an election rally, Prime Minister Edi Rama said Meta’s decision was wrong and insisted the local votes would be held as scheduled to prevent political “blackmail” from being used to force the calling of early parliamentary elections.  

  

The Albanian opposition, led by the center-right Democratic Party, accuses the left-wing government of links to organized crime and vote rigging. Opposition leaders are demanding Rama’s resignation, the naming of a transitional Cabinet, and an earlier date for the next general election.    

Opposition lawmakers also have relinquished their seats in parliament, where the government holds a comfortable majority. 

 

The government denies the allegations and said opposition-organized protests that started in February have hurt the country’s image as the European Union is set to decide this month whether to launch negotiations to include Albania as a member.  

  

The United States and the European Union urged protesters to disavow violence and sit in a dialogue with government representatives to resolve the political crisis. 

 

In an interview with private TV station Top Channel, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Mathew Palmer warned opposition political leaders, “if there are acts of violence in future protests, we will consider them responsible.” 

Libyan Coast Guard Intercepts 22 Migrants 

Libya’s coast guard said Saturday that it had intercepted nearly two dozen Europe-bound migrants off the country’s Mediterranean coast. 

 

Spokesman Ayoub Gassim said a wooden boat carrying at least 22 African migrants, all men, was intercepted Friday north of the Bouri offshore oil field, around 105 kilometers (65 miles) from Tripoli. 

 

He said the migrants were given humanitarian and medical aid and then were taken to a refugee camp in the Tajoura district of eastern Tripoli. 

 

Libya became a major conduit for African migrants and refugees fleeing to Europe after the 2011 uprising that ousted and killed longtime ruler Moammar Gadhafi. 

 

Libyan authorities have stepped up efforts to stem the flow of migrants, with European assistance. 

NSC Deputy: Kosovo’s 100% Tariff on Serbian Goods Risks Setback

A White House deputy national security advisor says Kosovo’s excessively high tax on goods from Serbia precludes direct U.S. involvement in normalization talks, which President Donald Trump has been pushing for since December.

The EU-mediated dialogue between Pristina and Belgrade, which started in 2011, broke down last fall over a proposed land swap and Kosovo’s levy of a 100-percent tax on imports from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Last month, Kosovar President Hashim Thaci said Washington must have a “leading role” in the process of normalizing relations with Serbia because the European Union is too “weak” and “not united.”

But John Erath, deputy senior director for European Affairs on the U.S. National Security Council, says that’s a non-starter unless Pristina suspends or kills the tariff to lure Belgrade back to the negotiating table.

“We’ve heard that it’s important for the U.S. to be involved in the dialogue, to play some kind of facilitating role, but we can’t do this until there’s an actual dialogue—that is, until the tariff goes away,” he told VOA’s Albanian Service.

“I sit in my office and I have plans for how I can help and what the U.S. contribution can be, and I can’t start to implement them until we get past the question of the tariff,” said Erath.

‘Territorial adjustments’

White House National Security Adviser John Bolton raised eyebrows last fall when he broke from a long-held U.S. position on the issue by stating that the United States would not be bothered if Serbia and Kosovo agreed to “territorial adjustments.”

Also known as land swaps or border corrections, territorial adjustments are politically sacrilege to EU leaders and most regional experts involved in normalization talks. They’ve described them as a form of “peaceful ethnic cleansing” that risks reigniting border quarrels in other politically fragile parts of the region and reopening wounds from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

Erath, however, said Bolton’s statement doesn’t contradict Western messaging on the issue.

“Our position, very simply put, is that anything agreed between the two parties would be fine with us,” he said. “Our goal is to see an agreement and see normalized relations. The Germans emphasize that a little bit differently. But in effect, it is the same thing, because … I don’t see any practical way that you could work out a large territorial change that would be acceptable to both parties.

“The U.S. upholds the OSCE principles, including territorial integrity, and it is for the people in Kosovo to decide what is the question of their territorial integrity,” he added, largely echoing statements recently made by Matthew Palmer, deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. State Department.

“This is all just a rehash,” he added. “We went through this back in 2007 in the Ahtisaari process, where some of the so-called experts were proposing partitions and things like that. It was nonsense then and it’s nonsense now. There can be no partition.”

Retired U.S. Ambassador Frank Wisner, who served as the U.S. special envoy to U.N.-backed talks that led to Kosovo’s declaration of independence, agreed.

“I don’t think any of us on the outside should second guess the Serbians or the Kosovars in their trying to resolve the issues that divide them, and if they want to do it with some territorial adjustment that’s fine, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he told VOA, calling it logistically unrealistic.

“There’s insufficient public support inside Kosovo, insufficient political support,” he said. “And inside Serbia, without some measure of progress, [citizens] are not going to buy a territorial solution, so I don’t see a way forward.”

Twenty years on

June 10 marks 20 years since the cessation of violence in the region, when then-President Bill Clinton announced the 78-day U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign against Serbia concluded.

Reflecting on the intervening two decades, Wisner said current EU-led negotiations should proceed “in the lowest-key possible fashion,” with much greater public emphasis on financial support and foreign investment.

“While of course there will be continuing negotiations, there won’t be an easy or early answer to those negotiations,” he said. “Rather, the obligation falls principally on the European Union to invest in the region and to increase its efforts to bring the region into Europe—to increase road connections, electricity, internet connectivity, and economic activity of a wide variety.”

Political solutions alone, he explained, are too easily derailed by regional actors.

“That was the case inside Kosovo, and it’s been the case in Bosnia where local political realities overcame the best intention of external negotiators,” he said.

Majority-Albanian Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after NATO airstrikes ended Belgrade’s control of the territory following a brutal counter-insurgency there by Serbian security forces.

But Serbia, whose constitution still sees Kosovo as Serb territory and the cradle of their Orthodox Christian faith, has been blocking Kosovo from joining international institutions such as Interpol and UNESCO, and still provides financial aid to ethnic Serbs in Kosovo.

Both Kosovo and Serbia aspire to join the EU, which has made the normalization of relations a precondition for membership.

Both sides hopeful

Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic has repeatedly said revoking the 100-percent tariff is Belgrade’s only requirement for resuming talks, while Kosovar officials have demanded that Serbia first recognize Kosovo’s independence.

Although more than 110 countries recognize Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Russia, China and five European Union countries, remain opposed to its independence.

Tensions in the region spiked last week when Kosovar police raided Serb-populated areas in what officials called a crackdown on organized crime. Serbia’s president responded by putting its border troops on full alert. Only a day before, he’d told Serbian lawmakers the country had to accept that it had forever lost control of Kosovo.

Speaking at an event in Slovakia on Friday, Vucic told reporters that despite his pessimism about prospects for a breakthrough in negotiations, “both sides must keep seeking a compromise.”

Kosovo’s president expressed hope while speaking at the same event about reaching a normalization deal with Serbia this year, and that a planned meeting on July 1 in Paris might prove a turning point.

“I hope so,” he told reporters. “If not, we will lose a decade.”

This story originated in VOA’s Albanian Service. Some information is from Reuters

 

Conservatives Battle to Replace Theresa May

The race to succeed the Brexit-fouled Theresa May as Conservative party leader and the country’s prime minister got underway Saturday in earnest, two days after Britain’s governing party suffered one of its worst ever humiliations in a parliamentary by-election.

The Conservative leadership contest risks deepening the rift in the party over when, how or even if to leave the European Union — with a few of the nearly dozen contenders ruling out serving in a future cabinet — if they are vanquished and lose out to a rival.

Some Conservative lawmakers and activists fear the party is in the grips of an existential crisis and could be permanently sundered by Brexit — easily split in two. That would leave the way open for Britain’s main opposition party, Labour, to win the next general election. Some observers suspect that poll will have to be held later this year because of the long-running parliamentary deadlock over Brexit.

“The future survival of the Conservative party is at risk,” according to onetime deputy prime minister Damian Green.

On Friday, May formally quit as party leader without fanfare or ceremony, sad testimony to a ruined and brief premiership that was buffeted from the start by the challenge of pulling off Brexit. She broke all records with the number of ministers who quit her government during her less than three years at Downing Street .

She held no public events Friday and remained secluded in her constituency in southern England, with the country’s newspapers having to make do with a blurred photograph of her being driven away from Downing Street.

She left her role just as the scale of the setback the Conservatives suffered midweek in a by-election in the English market town of Peterborough sank in. Labour managed to hold the seat by a wafer-thin majority of 683 votes with a candidate who’s been accused of anti-Semitism. The Conservatives saw a 25-percent drop in voter share

The Conservatives weren’t the runners-up in a constituency they have only lost control of three times since 1880. The eight-week-old Brexit Party of Nigel Farage came second, attracting the backing of thousands of Conservative defectors. It also is raising the specter of being able to do so in other marginal constituencies up and down the country, dooming the Conservatives in a future general election.

Although Farage celebrated the result for his party, which won 29 seats in last month’s European Parliament elections, trouncing both the Conservatives and Labour, the outcome in Peterborough wasn’t entirely good news for the Brexit party either.

Peterborough voted by an overwhelming majority for Brexit in the 2016 referendum. So if Farage’s party can’t win a British parliamentary seat in Peterborough, it augers badly, according to some pollsters, for it to actually capture seats elsewhere.

Farage had clearly thought Peterborough would mark a triumphant entry for the Brexit Party into the House of Commons.

May will remain in office as a powerless caretaker prime minister until the leadership election is concluded likely late next month. After that she’ll be “another portrait on the Downing Street staircase, cruelly remembered as the prime minister who failed to deliver Brexit and left her party on the brink,” according to the Daily Telegraph newspaper’s associate editor, Camilla Tominey.

Former foreign minister Boris Johnson is seen by the bookmakers — and many party activists — as the favorite in the race, which now features 11 candidates. New party rules designed to speed up the race means that number could be reduced to six by Monday. Johnson was seen three years ago as a shoo-in to replace David Cameron, but he lost out to May. That was partly thanks to the defection of his Brexit ally Michael Gove, who withdrew as his campaign manager, and stood against him, saying his friend and Oxford University contemporary was unfit for the highest office.

Gove, a brainy politician with greater ministerial experience than Johnson, is running again and is seen by some party insiders as the dark horse in the heated contest. The other strong contenders are the current foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, who’s running on his businessman credentials and positioning himself as a compromise candidate, and Dominic Raab, a former Brexit minister, who’s trying to compete with Johnson as the most muscular and hardline Brexiter.

Raab has provoked a fierce political dispute after saying midweek he wouldn’t rule out suspending parliament for several weeks if he wins, in order to force through Britain’s departure from the EU, whether the country has a finally agreed to withdrawal agreement or not.

Suspending parliament — officially it would be called proroguing — would render lawmakers powerless and unable to vote to block the government from leaving the EU on the latest departure deadline of October 31.

Such a bid would trigger a constitutional crisis, drawing the queen into party politics as her approval would first have to be secured. The idea has been denounced by other contenders, both Brexiters and Europhiles.

Rory Stewart, a candidate in the race, said such a suspension would be “unlawful, undemocratic and unachievable.” Amber Rudd, a current pensions minister and a Europhile, said, “I think it’s outrageous to consider proroguing parliament,” citing King Charles I, who shuttered parliament in the 17th century, triggering a civil war.

Rabb’s supporters argue the move would help “save parliament from itself,” insisting parliament has been blocking the will of the people by failing to observe the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum and seeking delays.

May concluded a withdrawal agreement with the EU last November after two years of ill-tempered haggling with Brussels, but parliament has withheld its approval of the exit deal. Europhiles, who favor continued participation in the European Union, fear it doesn’t keep Britain tied closely enough to the EU, Britain’s biggest trading partner, while hardline Brexiters, who want a sharp break with the EU, argue it would turn Britain into a “vassal state.”