Full interview with Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland

Around the globe, there are 54 nations, most of which are all former territories of the British Empire. Patricia Scotland is the organization’s Secretary-General. She spoke with International Edition’s Steve Miller via Skype about the challenges member nations are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic and what’s been done to address their needs.

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.”


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


Norway Mediation Effort in Venezuela’s Crisis Slows

Venezuelan leader Juan Guaido said Friday that the opposition’s demand for presidential elections is not negotiable, slowing mediation efforts by Norway aimed at resolving Venezuela’s political crisis. 


“A new meeting isn’t planned at the moment, we can get what we’ve proposed on the agenda,” Guaido said at an event in the central city of Valencia, dismissing earlier comments from Russia’s foreign ministry that a third round of exploratory talks with representatives of Nicolas Maduro would take place next week. 


“Nobody who is straight in the head would sit across from a dictator thinking he is negotiating in good faith,” he added.

Guaido’s biting comments, coming as mediators from Norway were in Caracas trying to prevent the talks from derailing, highlight the huge obstacles to negotiating a peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela, which has endured economic and political turmoil for years. 


Guaido, who heads the opposition-controlled congress, revived a flagging opposition movement in January by declaring himself Venezuela’s rightful leader, quickly drawing recognition from the United States and more than 50 nations that say Maduro’s re-election last year was illegitimate.

But Maduro, backed by the military as well as Cuba and Russia, has held on to power in the face of U.S. oil sanctions that are adding to misery in a nation hit hard by hyperinflation and widespread fuel, food and power shortages.

Norway has hosted two rounds of exploratory talks between the Venezuelan government and opposition in an attempt to break the ongoing stalemate. 


The opposition, mindful of the collapse of past dialogue attempts that only served to strengthen the government’s hand, has insisted the starting point for negotiations be a willingness by Maduro to hold presidential elections within a reasonable time frame. Maduro has balked at that call, blaming the opposition for boycotting last year’s presidential ballot and insisting instead on elections to revamp the opposition-controlled legislature.

“As long as both sides are hurting and don’t see a way out, there’s a possibility negotiations can succeed,” said James Dobbins, a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation who served as special U.S. envoy to several crisis hotspots including Haiti and Afghanistan. “It’s really the only hope left.”

The setback in Norway’s mediation effort comes amid a frenzy of regional diplomacy tied to the Venezuelan crisis.

Talks with Cuba

Also on Friday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez traveled to Toronto for talks with Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, hours after he met Venezuelan socialist party boss Diosdado Cabello in Cuba. 

“Cuba has a different position and that’s one reason why it’s important for us to talk to Cuba” about a solution to the Venezuelan crisis, Freeland said after meeting Rodriguez. She said “free and fair elections” is the way forward for Venezuela. Canada has joined the Trump administration in pressuring Maduro to resign.

Cabello had arrived in Cuba on Thursday. One of his first meetings was with Rodriguez, who said on Twitter they “discussed themes of international interest.” 

Maduro’s alleged crimes


Also Friday, Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, urging him to set up a unit to investigate and prosecute alleged crimes by Maduro and his associates. 


“The long list of Maduro’s crimes includes the illegal mining and trafficking of minerals, transnational drug trafficking, and theft of substantial sums of money from the Venezuelan government and hiding it in offshore bank accounts worldwide,” Rubio said. 


Maduro has denied any illegal activity and says the U.S. wants to overthrow him as a way to exploit Venezuela’s vast oil resources.

Venezuelan passports

In another development, the Trump administration said it will recognize the validity of Venezuelan passports for five years beyond their printed expiration dates. The State Department announced that the passports will be considered valid for visa applications and entry into the United States in recognition of a decision by Venezuela’s opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Getting a new passport or an extension is expensive and lengthy for many Venezuelans. Many of the more than 4 million Venezuelans who fled the country in recent years had left without a valid passport.

Putin Open to Talks With Ukraine’s New President 

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he is open for talks with Ukraine’s newly elected president. 


Asked Friday why he didn’t congratulate comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy on taking office as Ukrainian president last month, Putin pointed at Zelenskiy’s statements in which he called Russia an aggressor.    

Relations between the two countries have been strained since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and Moscow’s support for a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine. 


Putin said that Zelenskiy is a talented actor, but noted that “there is a difference between playing and being.”  


He softened the statement by adding that Zelenskiy may have the makings of a leader and said that he is open for a meeting with Ukraine’s new leader.

US Starts ‘Unwinding’ Turkey from F-35 Fighter Jet Program

The United States on Friday raised the stakes in its standoff with Turkey over Ankara’s deal to acquire a Russian air defense system, laying out a plan to remove the NATO ally from the F-35 fighter jet program that includes halting any new training for Turkish pilots on the advanced aircraft.

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan sent a letter to his Turkish counterpart, seen by Reuters on Friday, that laid out the steps to “unwind” Turkey from the program.

Reuters on Thursday first reported the decision to stop accepting more Turkish pilots for training in the United States, in one of the most concrete signs that the dispute between Washington and Ankara is reaching a breaking point.

The United States says Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defense system poses a threat to the Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 stealthy fighters, which Turkey also plans to buy. The United States says Turkey cannot have both.

Shanahan’s letter explicitly states there will be “no new F-35 training.” It says there were 34 students scheduled for F-35 training later this year.

“This training will not occur because we are suspending Turkey from the F-35 program; there are no longer requirements to gain proficiencies on the systems,” according to an attachment to the letter that is titled, “Unwinding Turkey’s Participation in the F-35 Program.”

In his letter, Shanahan warns that training for Turkish personnel on the F-35 at Luke Air Force Base and Eglin Air Force Base will be discontinued at the end of July.

“This timeline will enable many, but not all, Turkish F-35 students currently training to complete their courses prior to departing the United States by July 31, 2019,” Shanahan said in his letter, which noted: “You still have the option to change course on the S-400.”

Turkey has expressed an interest in buying 100 of the fighters, which would have a total value of $9 billion at current prices.

Strained relationship

If Turkey were removed from the F-35 program, it would be one of the most significant ruptures in recent history in the relationship between the two allies, experts said.

Strains in ties already extend beyond the F-35 to include conflicting strategy in Syria, Iran sanctions and the detention of U.S. consular staff in Turkey.

The disclosure of the decision on the pilots follows signs that Turkey is moving ahead with the S-400 purchase. 

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on May 22 that Turkish military personnel were receiving training in Russia to use the S-400, and that Russian personnel may go to Turkey. The head of Russian state conglomerate Rostec, Sergei Chemezov, said the country would start delivering S-400 missile systems to Turkey in two months, the Interfax news agency reported.

‘Devastating’ deal

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday it was “out of the question” for Turkey to back away from its deal with Moscow. Erdogan said the United States had not “given us an offer as good as the S-400s.”

The Turkish lira declined as much as 1.5% on Friday before recovering some losses. The currency has shed nearly 10% of its value against the dollar this year in part on fraying diplomatic ties and the risk of U.S. sanctions if Turkey accepts delivery of the S-400s.

Kathryn Wheelbarger, one of the Pentagon’s most senior policy officials, said last week that Turkey’s completion of the transaction with Russia would be “devastating,” dealing heavy blows to the F-35 program and to Turkish interoperability within the NATO alliance.

“The S-400 is a Russian system designed to shoot down an aircraft like the F-35,” said Wheelbarger, an acting assistant secretary of defense. “And it is inconceivable to imagine Russia not taking advantage of that [intelligence] collection opportunity.”

Russia Says US Warship Nearly Caused Collision in E. China Sea

 Russia’s Pacific Fleet on Friday accused a U.S. warship of nearly causing a collision with a Russian military vessel in the East China Sea due to what it called dangerous maneuvering, Russian news agencies reported.

The Russian Navy was cited as saying that the USS Chancellorsville, a guided-missile cruiser, had come within just 50 meters of the Russian destroyer Admiral Vinogradov which had been forced to take emergency action to avoid a collision.