British and Spanish leaders say Russian trolls meddled in their elections

The Washington Post reports: In a remarkable one-two punch aimed at Russian hackers, bots and trolls, the prime ministers of Britain and Spain have separately accused Russian entities — including some allegedly supported by the state — of meddling in European elections and have vowed to foil them.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Tuesday that an “avalanche” of bots spread “fake news” about Spain during Catalonia’s independence referendum last month and that Spanish authorities think that more than half of the originating accounts are in Russian territory.

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday night charged that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia was attempting to “undermine free societies” and “sow discord” in Britain and among its Western allies by “deploying its state-run media organizations to plant fake stories.”

“So I have a very simple message for Russia,” May said. “We know what you are doing. And you will not succeed.”

The allegations leveled by May and Rajoy stand in stark contrast to remarks made over the weekend by President Trump, who appeared to defend the Russian president. [Continue reading…]

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Russian crime bosses and their ties to Putin

ProPublica reports: Among the wealthy sophisticates who came and went from their seaside villas on the Spanish island of Mallorca, there was something that didn’t quite fit about the Russian who lived in a neoclassical mansion on the Avenida Portals Vells. Tall and powerfully built, with a flattened nose and graying, short-cropped hair, he looked more like an aging boxer than an international businessman. Most days, dressed in a t-shirt and sweat pants, he would drive over to a local marina in his older-model Mercedes—he saved the Bentley for rides with his wife—and stop in at a favorite restaurant. Taking a table by the water’s edge, he would order a tapa and watch the boats, murmuring into his cell phone in a hoarse, Slavic whisper.

It wasn’t long before police began to wonder about Gennady Petrov. He and his family were clearly Russian, but their passports were Greek. They seemed to have a lot of money, and to spend it in unusual ways. A real estate agent reported that Petrov had paid a contractor to build a tunnel down to the sea from another home he had owned in the area. Then there was an incident involving two Russians who were arrested as they prowled outside an upscale shopping center. The suspects wouldn’t talk, even after the police found a bomb in their car. But detectives eventually determined that the men were hoodlums who had flown in from Frankfurt to track another Russian—a businessman who was apparently involved in a dispute with Petrov.

The authorities soon discovered that Petrov was indeed a former boxer—and reputedly a high-ranking figure in one of Russia’s most powerful criminal organizations, the Tambovskaya. In Spain alone, he had amassed at least $50 million in properties and businesses. Beyond his island refuge, he was said to control a global network of legitimate and illicit activities, ranging from jewelry stores and extortion rings to the gray-market sale of Soviet MiG-29 fighter jets. But even the scope of Petrov’s enterprises did not prepare Spanish investigators for what they heard when they began to listen in on his telephone calls.

At one point, Petrov called a senior justice official in Moscow to complain that a Russian shipyard had fallen behind on construction of a new yacht Petrov had ordered. According to a confidential Spanish report of the conversation, the Russian official promised to go see the shipbuilder with some of “his boys,” and show him “a lot of affection.” Days later, another Spanish wiretap caught two of Petrov’s associates laughing about how agents of the Russian security forces had left the shipbuilder terrified. The yacht was back on schedule.

In hundreds of telephone calls intercepted during the year before Petrov’s arrest in 2008, Spanish investigators listened as the mob boss chatted with powerful businessmen, notorious criminals and high-level officials in the government of Vladimir Putin. During one trip to Russia, Petrov called his son to say he had just met with a man who turned out to be the Russian defense minister—and to report that they had sorted out a land deal, the sale of some airplanes, and a scheme to invest in Russian energy companies.

“Will you join the government?” a fellow mob boss joked with Petrov in another conversation monitored by Spanish investigators. “I bought a suitcase to store all the bribes you’ll get.” Petrov seemed to enjoy the irony, but said he was quite satisfied with Putin’s continued political control.

At a time when Russian intelligence and criminal activities have become an urgent concern in the United States and Europe, the Spanish investigations of Petrov and other Russians offer a remarkable view of the way that some of the most powerful mafia bosses have operated, both in Russia and abroad. Building on ties that sometimes date to the last years of the Soviet Union, more sophisticated mob leaders have survived gang wars and crackdowns to amass extraordinary wealth and influence, while remaining almost as deferential to Putin’s government as the oligarchs he helped create. Rather than simply bribing police officials to facilitate their activities, bosses like Petrov have established themselves as business partners, money launderers, and investment scouts for high-ranking officials who have amassed sizable fortunes themselves, Western security officials say. Those relationships, in turn, have enabled crime bosses to expand their involvement in legitimate business and political activities that are linked to the Russian government. [Continue reading…]

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Catalonia crackdown evokes memories of the dark days of Spain’s dictatorship

The Washington Post reports: As Spanish leaders and Catalonia’s separatists battle over the fate of the would-be breakaway region, a shadow from the past is looming over the conflict: Francisco Franco, the dictator who held his nation in an iron grip from 1939 to well into the 1970s.

With Catalan leaders exiled and locked behind bars, Catalan media outlets under threat and national police using truncheons to break up last month’s independence referendum, many here in Catalonia say that their repressive history is making an ugly return.

They point to the no-negotiation stance by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who they say has sought to quell separatism not by persuasion but by force and fear. And they say his center-right People’s Party never fully purged itself of its past after having been founded by Franco-era officials.

Rajoy and his allies dismiss the criticism, saying they are democratically elected leaders operating within the bounds of Spain’s constitution. But they, too, have occasionally reached toward the opposite side in their nation’s bitter history. Government spokesman Pablo Casado recently warned that if Catalan President Carles Puigdemont declared independence, he could wind up with a fate similar to a previous Catalan leader during the Spanish Civil War who was executed by firing squad in 1940. [Continue reading…]

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Catalan leader vows ‘peaceful resistance’ as Madrid takes control of region

The Guardian reports: The Catalan leader has issued a defiant response to Madrid’s decision to take direct control of Catalonia, calling for “democratic opposition” to the takeover.

In a brief video message issued on Saturday afternoon, Carles Puigdemont vowed to continue working to build “a free country”.

“We must do so resisting repression and threats, without ever abandoning, at any time, civic and peaceful conduct,” he said, adding that his government did not have or want “the argument of force”.

Madrid reacted to the Catalan parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence on Friday by firing the regional government and dismissing the head of the local police force.

Puigdemont and his cabinet were formally removed from their posts, and their powers and responsibilities taken over by central government in notices posted to the official state bulletin on Saturday morning. [Continue reading…]

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Tired by years of separatist strife, many Basques wary of new independence bid

The New York Times reports: Deep in the hills of the Basque region, in northern Spain, Luis Iriondo tapped a bridge with his walking stick.

Mr. Iriondo, 95, is one of the last survivors of a notorious assault on Guernica during the Spanish Civil War in 1937. He was 14 when German bombers fighting for Gen. Francisco Franco reduced this town, for centuries a sacred symbol of Basque identity, to rubble.

And it was somewhere beneath this bridge that Mr. Iriondo, more than 80 years ago, sheltered during the attack.

Franco won the war and ended Basque self-government, which did not return until 1979, after Franco’s death. Though Mr. Iriondo still hopes for greater autonomy for the region, he does not want Basque separatists to follow their counterparts in Catalonia, whose parliament voted on Friday to secede from Spain, prompting the Spanish government to take administrative control of Catalonia hours later.

“All my life, all I have had on my mind is war,” Mr. Iriondo said. “So what I look forward to is peace and unity.”

If the pollsters are right, his position is not uncommon among the Basques of Spain. As the secession crisis in Catalonia deepens, attention has turned to the northern Basque region — which, like Catalonia, has its own language, culture and long history of separatism — to see if the desire for independence proves contagious.

Until the 19th century, Spanish kings swore an oath to respect Basque autonomy underneath a tree here in Guernica. But the region’s self-government was dismantled in 1876, and so it remained (barring a brief period of autonomy during the Spanish Civil War) for more than a century.

Even after its restoration, self-government was still not enough for some Basques — including a militant group, ETA, which killed more than 800 civilians, policemen and soldiers in a decades-long campaign for independence that formally ended this year.

But despite this tortured history, or perhaps because of it, the Catalan crisis does not appear to have markedly increased the zeal for Basque independence. [Continue reading…]

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Spanish PM dissolves Catalan parliament and calls fresh elections

The Guardian reports: The Spanish government has taken control of Catalonia, dissolved its parliament and announced new elections after secessionist Catalan MPs voted to establish an independent republic, pushing the country’s worst political crisis in 40 years to new and dangerous heights.

Speaking on Friday evening, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said his cabinet had fired the regional president, Carles Puigdemont, and ordered regional elections to be held on 21 December.

Rajoy said the Catalan government had been removed along with the head of the regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. The Catalan government’s international “embassies” are also to be shut down. [Continue reading…]

Simon Tisdall writes: What comes next could make or break Rajoy and his government. But it could also make or break Spain.

Hardliners in Madrid, including members of Rajoy’s ruling People’s party, are champing at the bit. They will now demand a quick end to the protracted Catalan crisis, which has transfixed the entire country since the region’s disputed independence referendum earlier this month.

Ultra-unionists who have long sought to clip the wings of Catalonia’s autonomy will see a chance, and a justification, to bring secessionist leaders crashing down to earth. Their main targets are Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, Oriol Junqueras, his deputy, and Carme Forcadell, speaker of the Catalan assembly.

The penalties for rebellion under the Spanish constitution are harsh. Rajoy’s government has already shown itself willing to wield this weapon, locking up two leading Catalan independence advocates and appearing to throw away the key.

Jordi Sanchez, head of the Catalan National Assembly pressure group, and Jordi Cuixart of Omnium Cultural, were remanded in custody without the possibility of bail last week for alleged sedition. They face up up to 15 years in prison. [Continue reading…]

BBC News reports: The Scottish government has said it “respects and understands” the position of the Catalan government, which has declared independence from Spain.

In a statement, External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop did not explicitly recognise Catalonia as an independent state.

But she said the people of Catalonia “must have the ability to determine their own future”.

And she called for a “process of dialogue” to resolve the crisis. [Continue reading…]

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Catalan leader will let lawmakers decide on independence

The New York Times reports: After a chaotic day of wavering, Catalonia’s separatist leader, Carles Puigdemont, announced on Thursday that he would place a decision on independence from Spain before the region’s Parliament.

The move by Mr. Puigdemont virtually ensures that the central government in Madrid will take control of the restive region, using its emergency constitutional powers.

Mr. Puigdemont made the announcement before a scheduled appearance before the Catalan Parliament on Thursday evening. He said he had made the decision after failing to secure a commitment from the central government that it would not take control of the region if he called early elections.

“There are none of the guarantees that justify convening elections today,” Mr. Puigdemont said during a brief televised address from his government headquarters. “I tried to obtain the guarantees,” he said, but “I didn’t get a responsible answer from the Spanish government, which has instead used this option to add to the tension.”

He added: “It is now for Parliament to decide its answer to the application” of Article 155 of the national Constitution.

The Catalan Parliament met later Thursday, and might vote on a declaration of independence on Friday, shortly after the Spanish Senate approves emergency measures to impose Madrid’s direct rule on Catalonia. [Continue reading…]

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Spain will remove Catalonia leader, escalating secession crisis

The New York Times reports: The escalating confrontation over Catalonia’s independence drive took its most serious turn on Saturday as Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of Spain announced he would remove the leadership of the restive region and initiate a process of direct rule by the central government in Madrid.

It was the first time that Spain’s government had moved to strip the autonomy of one of its 17 regions, and the first time that a leader had invoked Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution — a broad tool intended to protect the “general interests” of the nation.

The unexpectedly forceful moves by Mr. Rajoy, made after an emergency cabinet meeting, thrust Spain into uncharted waters. The prime minister is trying to put down one of the gravest constitutional crises his country has faced since embracing democracy after the death of its dictator Gen. Francisco Franco in 1975. [Continue reading…]

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Spain threatens to take over Catalonia’s government as constitutional crisis looms

The Washington Post reports: Spain’s central government announced Thursday it would quickly move to take control of the autonomous Catalonia and restore “constitutional order” after the region’s president refused to back away from a push for independence.

Facing a deadline imposed by Spain’s central government to answer the question whether Catalonia was declaring independence or not, the regional president replied Thursday that Madrid should stop threatening to seize control of the autonomous region but instead agree to dialogue.
Catalonia’s president Carles Puigdemont answered Spain’s demand for clarity by sending a second letter to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, stating that Catalonia’s suspension of its declaration of independence remains in force.

But Puigdemont then added a threat of his own: if Madrid did not agree to talks, and continued its “repression” of the region, then the Catalan parliament would meet to vote on a formal declaration of independence. [Continue reading…]

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Catalan president stops short of declaring independence, calls for further dialogue with Spain

The Washington Post reports: In a long-awaited speech, Catalan regional president Carles Puigdemont affirmed on Tuesday the right of Catalonia to be an independent country. But he notably stopped short of declaring the region an independent polity, calling for further dialogue with the Spanish government.

By suspending the secession process, Puigdemont signaled an overture to critics and observers in Spain and across the European Union who feared the rise of separatism in the increasingly embattled 28-state bloc. He said that Catalonia’s conflict with Spain could be resolved in a rational way and suggested exploring international mediation as a possible solution.

Earlier Tuesday, the Spanish government rejected any offer of negotiation.

Throughout a long and often bitter process, Madrid fiercely rejected the prospect of Catalan independence, deploying police to interrupt the vote in violent clashes and threatening to throw Puigdemont in jail if he went any further. Spain’s constitutional court had ruled Catalonia’s referendum illegal, and although a majority of those who voted supported leaving Spain, fewer than 50 percent of eligible Catalan residents ultimately cast ballots. [Continue reading…]

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Catalonia: Hundreds of thousands join anti-independence rally in Barcelona

The Guardian reports: Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Barcelona to protest against the Catalan government’s decision to push for independence, as Spain’s prime minister warned that he was prepared to suspend the region’s autonomy to stop it splitting from the rest of the country.

Sunday’s rally – organised by Societat Civil Catalana, the region’s main pro-unity organisation – comes a week after the independence referendum that has plunged Spain into its worst political crisis in four decades.

The march, whose slogan is “Let’s recover our common sense”, was intended to call for a new phase of dialogue with the rest of Spain and featured such luminaries as the Nobel-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and Josep Borrell, former president of the European parliament.

Societat Civil Catalana said more than 1 million people had taken part, but Barcelona police put the turnout at 350,000.

The Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, is under growing pressure to stop short of declaring independence. The political uncertainty has already led some businesses – including Spain’s third-largest bank – to move their bases from Catalonia. [Continue reading…]

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‘We don’t know how good we have it here’: Many Catalans don’t want a break with Spain

The Washington Post reports: The shocking images of Spanish riot police using rubber batons to beat voters away from the ballot box were the most powerful impressions of the chaotic vote in the wannabe breakaway republic of Catalonia.

But just out of view of the camera lenses was the majority of Spanish citizens in this stylish, peaceful and prosperous region in the heart of Europe — those who did not vote in the disputed referendum for an independent Catalonia.

At least 6 in 10 registered voters stayed home, suggesting deep division and opposition to the split with Spain sought by the separatists.

Who are they? What do they want?

Many here are now calling themselves “the silent majority.”

They range from old-school socialists to old-family capitalists, who say the Catalan independence referendum was either a bad idea or just done so badly. [Continue reading…]

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Pro-unity Catalans take to the streets to condemn ‘selfish revolution’

The Observer reports: They call themselves the silenced; the Catalans who are opposed to independence but have been unable – and often afraid – to make their voice heard above the roaring passion of the secessionists.

Huge numbers are expected to protest on Sunday in Barcelona against the perceived hijacking of the political process by an independence movement that has so far never won the support of more than 48% of the population.

The march has been organised by Societat Civil Catalana (SCC), the main channel for anti-independence sentiment in what has suddenly become one of the most troubled regions in Europe. The march will call for a new phase of dialogue with the rest of Spain and will be attended by such luminaries as the Nobel-winning Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa and Josep Borrell, former president of the European parliament.

There is acute uncertainty over where the crisis will lead, after Spain’s constitutional court banned the Catalan parliament from sitting tomorrow to prevent it declaring independence. While some members of parliament said the sitting would go ahead as planned, eyes are now focused on a statement that Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, intends to make on Tuesday.

Puigdemont is under pressure to pull back from the brink by not declaring independence. The Barcelona Bar Association (ICAB) has published an open letter saying: “The Independent Commission for Mediation, Dialogue and Conciliation has told the president that it is essential to hold back on political decisions that will increase the tension between the state and Catalan governments.”

Saturday saw marches and demonstrations all over Spain, with tens of thousands gathering in Madrid’s Plaza Colón in favour of a united Spain. In dozens of towns and cities, including Barcelona, people joined the “white demonstrations” demanding dialogue. Dressed in white and without any flags, protesters marched under the single slogan in Spanish and Catalan: Hablemos/Parlem – let’s talk. [Continue reading…]

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As Germany and Spain prove, history – with all its wounds – is not over

Natalie Nougayrède writes: History is back in Europe. The Catalan referendum and the German election illustrate this spectacularly. The scale of the far-right vote in what was once East Germany and Catalonia’s apparent march towards independence may look like they happened on separate planets – to be sure, they are fuelled by different political beliefs – but they both have to do with pent-up frustrations. Citizens who feel that they have been insulted have gone to the ballot box, and in some cases taken to the streets, to protest. In both situations there is a vivid historical backdrop, with memories of Europe’s 20th-century nightmares playing an important role: in Catalonia, the fight against fascism and Franco; in the east of Germany, the experiences of Nazism and Soviet communism.

In Leipzig and the nearby small town of Grimma, I was told about how citizens felt their self-esteem had been trampled on. German reunification has not led to a shared sense of community. Rather, it’s compared to colonisation: “westerners” took over everything – regional administrations, courts, education and the economy. Everything about life in the Communist state – the way people dressed, what they ate, what they learned in school, how they decorated their homes, what they watched on TV – became an object of scorn and ridicule. It’s not that life isn’t better now: of course it is. There is freedom. And living standards have improved immensely. But many eastern Germans feel their identity has somehow been negated, as if they were being asked to forget about it.

Speaking with Catalan friends in recent days, I heard similar qualms: “We were waiting for a sign that our voice would be heard, but as the years passed nothing was changing” … “Our cultural difference isn’t being acknowledged as it should be”: these were common sentiments, even from people not altogether enthusiastic about breaking away from Spain. [Continue reading…]

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Spain suspends Catalan parliament session as independence row escalates

The Guardian reports: The Spanish prime minister has called for the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, to drop plans for a unilateral declaration of independence to avoid “greater harm”.

Speaking a day after Puigdemont said he would press ahead with plans to make a declaration in the next week, Mariano Rajoy warned that the situation could escalate further if the Catalan government carried on.

“Is there a solution? Yes, there is,” Rajoy told the Spanish news agency Efe. “And the best one would be a return to legality and the swiftest possible confirmation that there won’t be a unilateral independence declaration, because that way still greater harm could be avoided.” [Continue reading…]

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Catalonia moves to declare independence from Spain on Monday

Reuters reports: Catalonia will move on Monday to declare independence from Spain following its banned referendum as the European Union nation nears a rupture that threatens the foundations of its young democracy.

Mireia Boya, a Catalan lawmaker from the pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party, said on Twitter that a declaration of independence would follow a parliamentary session on Monday to evaluate the results of the Oct. 1 vote to break away.

“We know that there may be disbarments, arrests … But we are prepared, and in no case will it be stopped,” she said.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said earlier he would ask the region’s parliament to declare independence following the poll, which Spain’s government and constitutional court say was illegal and in which only a minority of Catalans voted. [Continue reading…]

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Catalonia responds to police violence: ‘people are angry, very angry’

The Guardian reports: Like much of Catalonia, the Hotel Vila in Calella was shuttered on Tuesday morning, its rooms empty, its doors locked and a sign reading Hotel Tancat (hotel closed) stuck to a window.

But on Sunday night, hours after the Spanish police’s attempts to halt the Catalan independence referendum exploded into violence, the hotel became another frontline in the skirmishes between locals and Spanish police; a further manifestation of the furious disbelief that has triggered strikes across the region and which brought thousands of people on to the streets of Barcelona and Girona on Tuesday to protest against an unaccustomed brutality.

Calella, a seaside resort town 36 miles north-east of Barcelona, the Catalan capital, has long served as a billet for Spanish police officers who stay there when they are deployed to keep order at large-scale events in the city.

However, the Guardia Civil officers lodged in the Hotel Vila over the weekend soon learned that they were no longer welcome.

At around 10.30 on Sunday night, incensed by the scenes of police brutality in nearby Sant Cebrià de Vallalta and around many parts of Catalonia, a group of local people headed to the hotel chanting: “Out occupation forces!” A video of the protest also shows some people shouting “fascists!” and calling the officers sons of bitches.

A group of officers – some carrying batons – emerged and, despite the intervention of members of the Catalan police force, allegedly attacked the protesters. According to the town’s mayor, 14 people were injured, of whom four were taken to hospital.

“We’ve had Guardia Civil and national police staying here for years before big football matches and nothing’s ever happened,” said one local business owner, who did not wish to be named. “There had never been problems until now. All the bars around here used to be full of them. But now people here are scared.”

By Monday night, the Guardia Civil had left Calella, leading Ramón Cosio, a spokesman for Spain’s main police union, to complain that officers were “fleeing from hotel to hotel; they are like rats who have to hide”.

The Unión de Guardias Civiles went further, saying the “harassment” of its officers in Catalonia was “more like Nazi Germany than what you see in any other country where democracy reigns and rights are guaranteed”.

With Madrid under growing international pressure to resolve its worst political crisis in decades, crowds gathered in Barcelona on Tuesday, chanting “independence”, repeating the cries of “occupying force” and urging Spanish police to leave the region. [Continue reading…]

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The EU has tied its own hands. It cannot intervene in Catalonia

Natalie Nougayrède writes: The Catalan crisis presents the EU with an unprecedented conundrum. Spain joined the European project in 1986, and its democratic transition has for decades been hailed as a model. Tensions have not run this high in the country since the 1981 failed military coup, when colonel Antonio Tejero seized the parliament in Madrid at gunpoint. The then king, young Juan Carlos, prevented the nation from entering another dark age by delivering a speech on TV uncompromisingly defending the constitution and identifying the monarchy with the country’s emerging democratic majority.

As Catalonia’s nationalist leadership hurtles towards what may be, in the coming days, a unilateral declaration of independence, the current king, Felipe, also took to the television screens. Can he rally consensus within Spain to prevent a full-on confrontation?

The best option, one would think, would be for the EU to step in. But calls for it to mediate between Madrid and Barcelona have been left unanswered. Not only that, the EU stands accused of complacency in the face of what some Catalan activists describe as state “repression” that carries echoes of the Franco era. Is any of this fair? [Continue reading…]

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