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Spanish freeze lays bare conditions in one of Europe’s biggest shanty towns



Some 14km from Madrid lies one of Europe’s biggest shanty towns, where this week as many as 3,000 people endured the coldest temperatures since the second world war without heat or light. 

The inhabitants of sector six of the illegal settlement known as La Cañada Real Galiana have been without electricity since early October — around 100 days. 

In a week when conditions dived below minus 13 degrees centigrade — the lowest for the region since 1945 — their plight is stark.

“Being in our houses is like being on the street . . . I daren’t look at the temperature, but when my feet are frozen I know it is very cold,” said Sara Benayad, a 26-year-old of Moroccan origin who has lived in the neighbourhood since she was 10. “We have no heat, the water has frozen up, and the fridge has not been on for four months.”

She and her husband have been unable to work at a local waste recycling facility for weeks, and their two-year-old was briefly hospitalised for respiratory problems. “I can’t go to work thinking of my child freezing at home,” she said. “We are in the middle of a pandemic and the middle of winter . . . This is what we are going through, in Europe, in the 21st century, in the heart of Spain.”

Cañada Real is unfinished business for 21st-century Spain, a problem that for decades the authorities have been incapable of resolving — or even defining. For many, it is a place synonymous with drug dealing and addiction, Madrid’s narcotics supermarket, where dealers and junkies coexist in squalid shack-lined streets in sector six that police fear to tread. 

For others it is testimony to social injustice and the huge gaps in Spain’s economic model and welfare state.

The problems have come to a head with this winter’s three-month long power outage for sector six, which the regional government and the electricity provider blame on massive and growing demand by illicit indoor marijuana plantations, but which residents see as an attempt to force them out.

“The usage is so huge that they don’t even want to pay the bills,” said Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the head of Madrid’s regional government, last month. “They are fine with parking their Porsches there, but not with paying their bills, which is what is provoking these power cuts.”

Volunteers hand out food packages during in sector 6 of La Cañada Real Galiana © Jaime Alekos/AFP/Getty

But residents like Ms Benayad maintain they are unable to get electricity contracts. “We want to pay for the electricity,” she said. “But they won’t even put in a meter.” For many, the problem resides in the unresolved status of Cañada Real — a land without property rights where much of the paperwork of day to day life is simply impossible.

The 14km long territory to the south-east of Madrid is an old cattle herding road — which made it public land, even as its original purpose faded into history. 

As the Spanish economy modernised from the 1960s on, economic migrants from the impoverished countryside of Andalucía and Extremadura piled into the area, building houses on land for which they had no title — just as shantytowns expanded in regions such as Latin America and Turkey around the same time.

Cañada Real accelerated its growth after Spain’s return to democracy in the 1970s, becoming what it is today — an area where settlements range from comfortable houses, some of whose owners have managed to regularise their status, to squalor and deprivation elsewhere. Until October, the buzz of electricity echoed throughout the territory, set off by the illicit connections residents have thrown up over the years.

Overall, according to official data — widely thought to be an underestimate — some 7,300 people live in Cañada Real. There are around 3,000 in sector six, the poorest and most populous area, where many inhabitants are of Moroccan, Roma or Romanian origin. Generally one in three inhabitants is a child — sector six is home to 1,200 children.

Even before the electricity dispute, conditions in the sector caused international outcry. Philip Alston, then UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, wrote a year ago of his “shock . . . at the extent to which the relevant governments appear to have abandoned the people living there”.

He added: “In Cañada Real, I met people living without a clinic, employment centre, school, or even legal electricity, on an unpaved road, directly adjacent to incinerators, in an area deemed hazardous to human health.”

But now, more than three months into the electricity outage, things are worse still. On December 22, nine UN human rights rapporteurs called on the government to immediately restore electricity. “Children . . . are truly suffering and their health is at risk.” 

Butane canisters and heaters have been distributed in the area, but some residents refused them, saying electricity was what was needed © Jaime Alekos/AFP/Getty

Lidia Ortega, a family doctor in the area, says there have been more than 40 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning because of the use of wood, gas or petrol stoves as alternative sources of heat, and that the cold puts newborns at risk. And then there is the pandemic. “The outages make social distancing impossible,” she said “People have to gather around what few sources of heat there are.”

Pablo Iglesias, Spain’s radical left deputy prime minister, has demanded that Naturgy, the utility for the area, restore electricity as soon as possible. 

But the power group says it has had to contend with an enormous number of illegal and often highly unsafe electricity connections. In the whole of sector six, and the adjacent sector five, it says, there are just four legitimate contract holders — for 1,500 households who consume the equivalent of 10,000 households.

The company says demand in sector six is so high that automatic circuit breakers are triggered whenever the power is turned back on. 

Raúl Suárez, head of Naturgy’s electricity distribution arm, argues that calls for a boost in the power supply to the neighbourhood cannot safely be met because of the improvised electrical connections. “The risk of fires and electrocution could lead to an even greater tragedy,” he said, adding that the power cuts are a symptom of “root causes” that go back decades. 

Naturgy’s critics say it could do more to cut off marijuana plantations while restoring families’ power supplies, but the group maintains it needs prior authorisations for such actions. 

This week, it and the regional government sought to distribute around 200 butane canisters and heaters to the area, but in response residents threw up barricades and threw stones.

“We decided to refuse these heaters, even though we need them, because what we want is electricity for our homes,” Ms Benayad said. “If they think this isn’t a fit place to live, then take us somewhere else, but leaving us and our families unprotected and without electricity just isn’t the solution.”

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Armenia’s prime minister claims military is plotting a coup




Armenia’s prime minister has claimed the country’s military is plotting a “coup,” and taken to the streets with his supporters after senior army figures in the former Soviet republic called on him to resign.

Nikol Pashinyan has faced months of protests demanding he step down after the defeat of Armenian forces in a six-week war with neighbouring Azerbaijan that ended in November.

The army weighed in on Thursday, calling on the prime minister to quit after he fired the first deputy chief of staff for criticising him.

A letter to the prime minister signed by 40 senior officers warned Pashinyan not to use force against demonstrators, but did not say whether the army would act to remove him from power.

“The current government’s ineffective management and serious mistakes in foreign policy have put the country on the brink of collapse,” the officers wrote on Facebook.

Pashinyan later fired the chief of the general staff, Onik Gasparyan, ordered police to secure government buildings in Yerevan and told his supporters in the capital’s Republic Square to avoid violent clashes.

Demonstrators at an opposition rally in Yerevan demand the resignation of Nikol Pashinyan. They cheered as a fighter jet flew overhead © Artem Mikryukov/Reuters

Describing the situation as “manageable” the prime minister denied he was planning to flee the country and said the army’s statement was an “emotional reaction” to a dispute over the defeat in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

“We have no enemies in Armenia. I am calling for calm,” Pashinyan said, according to Russian news agency Interfax. “Of course, the situation is tense, but we need dialogue, not confrontation.”

He later took to the streets with several thousand supporters and a megaphone — an echo of the 2018 “velvet revolution” that swept him to power following a march across the country that galvanised popular support. A few thousand opposition supporters gathered at a different square and cheered as a fighter jet flew overhead.

Pashinyan has fought off calls for his resignation since signing a Moscow-brokered peace deal in November that cemented territorial gains for Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. The mountainous enclave in the South Caucasus is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, but is populated by ethnic Armenians who seized control after a war that broke out in the dying days of the Soviet Union.

Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country and a close ally of Turkey, launched an offensive in September with the aim of retaking the entire enclave. Armenia’s army was ill prepared for oil-rich Azerbaijan’s modern drone fleet and significant backing from Ankara.

More than 3,300 Armenian soldiers died in the conflict, with a further 9,000 wounded. Thousands of civilians were displaced, including some who set their own homes on fire as they fled land now under control of Azerbaijan.

Russia, the traditional regional power broker and Armenia’s most important ally, remained neutral even as several previous ceasefires failed and has deployed 2,000 peacekeepers to secure the region.

Pashinyan admitted the terms were “unbelievably painful for me and my people” but argued the concessions were necessary to prevent further losses.

The devastating defeat sparked fury among Armenians who stormed the country’s parliament and attacked its speaker, demanding the prime minister’s resignation.

Pashinyan backtracked on a pledge to step down after snap elections earlier this month and remained in office in the face of opposition from Armenia’s ceremonial president, three parliamentary opposition parties, and key church leaders.

The Kremlin said on Thursday it was “following events in Armenia with caution” but considered them “exclusively Armenia’s internal matter”.

Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, told reporters Russia was “calling on everyone to be calm” and said “the situation should remain within constitutional limits,” according to Interfax.

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German accounting watchdog chief to step down in wake of Wirecard




The head of Germany’s accounting watchdog is to step down following mounting political pressure over corporate governance shortcomings exposed by the Wirecard fraud.

Edgar Ernst, the president of the Financial Reporting Enforcement Panel (FREP), said on Wednesday he would depart by the end of this year. He is the third head of a regulatory body to lose his job in the wake of one of Germany’s biggest postwar accounting scandals.

The collapse of Wirecard, which last summer filed for insolvency after uncovering a €1.9bn cash hole, triggered an earthquake in Germany’s financial and political establishment.

Felix Hufeld, president of BaFin, the financial regulatory authority, and his deputy Elisabeth Roegele were pushed out by the German government in January for failing to act on early red flags suggesting misconduct at Wirecard. Ralf Bose, the head of Germany’s auditors supervisor Apas, was fired after disclosing he traded Wirecard shares while this authority was investigating the company’s auditor, EY. The German government is also working to revamp the country’s accounting supervision and financial oversight.

Meanwhile, criminal prosecutors in Frankfurt are evaluating a potential criminal investigation into BaFin’s inner workings and on Wednesday asked the market authority to hand over comprehensive documents, the prosecutors office told the FT, confirming an earlier report by Handelsblatt. The potential scope of any investigation as well as the individuals who might be targeted is still unclear. BaFin declined to comment.

Ernst came under pressure as the parliamentary inquiry commission uncovered that he joined the supervisory board of German wholesaler Metro AG in an apparent violation of internal governance rules, which from 2016 banned FREP staff from taking on new supervisory board roles.

Last week, the former chief financial officer of Deutsche Post filed a legal opinion to parliament defending his move. He argued that his employment contract was older than the 2016 ban on board seats and hence trumped the tightened governance regulations.

The German government had subsequently threatened to ditch the private-sector body which currently has quasi-official powers.

In a statement published on Wednesday evening, FREP said that Ernst wants to open the door for a “fresh start” that would be untainted by the discussions around his supervisory board mandates. “FREP is losing a well-versed expert in capital markets,” the body said.

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Putin and Lukashenko’s ski fun shows cold shoulder to EU




As news of new EU sanctions against Russia began to leak out of a meeting of bloc foreign ministers on Monday afternoon, Vladimir Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko were discussing a different challenge to the Russian president.

“You can try to compete with Vladimir Vladimirovich,” Lukashenko, in ski gear, said to his son, Nikolai. “But you probably won’t catch up,” he added, with a smile to Putin as the Russian leader pushed off down the slope.

Putin and Lukashenko are the men behind Europe’s two repressive crackdowns over the past six months, who have both jailed or exiled their most prominent opponents and seen their security forces violently assault and detain thousands of peaceful protesters.

But in a summit in the snow-covered mountains of Sochi, on Russia’s southern coast, they revelled in their twosome of leaders shunned and sanctioned by Brussels, in a calibrated message to the EU that the cold-shoulder was mutual.

For foreign policy experts there were few details to digest, despite the complex negotiations going on behind the scenes as the two post-Soviet states seek to recalibrate their future relationship.

Putin is keen to deepen integration on Moscow’s terms. Lukashenko is desperate for Russian investment and trade co-operation but is loath to relinquish sovereignty. Yet in place of diplomatic negotiations and policy pronouncements, photographs and video footage of the two leaders enjoying each other’s company were in full display.

At the outset, Putin, in jeans and an open-collar shirt and blazer, greeted his guest with a handshake and a hug. “Even our appearance, clothes and so on, suggest that these are serious negotiations in ordinary clothes,” Lukashenko quipped. “It suggests that we are close people.”

Pleasantries exchanged, it was time for the salopettes and ski boots, and a shared chairlift to the summit. Putin, pushing off confidently, set off down the gentle slope, Lukashenko in his wake.

After a short ride on snowmobiles back to their chalets, discussions continued over more than six hours — and what appeared to be three different sized wine glasses.

“The optics for the international audience is that they have been able to maintain their positions and nothing can be done against them,” said Maryia Rohava, a research fellow at Oslo university specialising in post-Soviet relations.

“Now we’re talking not just about sanctions against Belarus but also against Russia,” she added. “And it seems like they look at that like, ‘Well, we don’t care . . . We’re just enjoying our winter break like autocrats do.’”

To be sure, the fun on the slopes was not wholly without power games. Putin was clear to underscore he was the senior partner, from wrongfooting his guest at the top of the ski lift to releasing photographs of their meeting showing Lukashenko scribbling notes as his host spoke.

But the mood music was in sharp contrast to Lukashenko’s last visit to Russia in September. Then, with protests raging and the Belarusian leader’s position looking shaky, Putin reprimanded his guest for mishandling the unrest and risking the toppling of an ageing post-Soviet regime that could weaken his own.

Then, in a businesslike and cold atmosphere, Lukashenko pleaded with Putin that “a friend is in trouble” and was granted a $1.5bn loan from Moscow — but not before his host remarked that Belarusian people should be given a chance to “sort this situation out”.

The absence of such language on Monday also sent a subtle signal to other illiberal regimes, particularly those on the outer rim of Europe who, like Belarus in the past, find themselves lured towards Brussels by economic opportunities but repelled by the reforms and democratic standards demanded in exchange.

The message to the likes of Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Turkey is that Putin, whose relations with the EU are at rock bottom, is always ready to talk.

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