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Batasuna does legwork as ETA inches towards Basque peace

While a number of factors influence and complicate current attempts to ensure a lasting peace in the Basque region, the changing relationship between ETA and its political wing is at the heart of this process.

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Basque sports fans let their hair down. Batasuna now sees politics as the only route to independence. Photo: anitalorite.

As ETA moves closer to what looks potentially like a full ceasefire that commits the Basque group to laying down its weapons once and for all, Spain’s politicians are offering some strictly scripted rhetoric. For most mainstream Spanish parties, scepticism and suspicion are the watchwords as they comment on ETA’s shift towards what could be lasting peace and the end of the separatist organisation’s 51-year history.

The group’s September 5 announcement that it had halted all “armed offensive actions” was deemed too half-hearted and vague by the governing Socialists and the opposition Popular Party (PP). They regarded it as a ploy to ensure the legalisation of ETA’s political support, Batasuna, ahead of Basque regional elections in May 2011. Politicians have been repeating like a mantra in recent weeks that if Batasuna wants any chance of seeing its 2003 ban from political activity reversed, it must distance itself from ETA and condemn the group’s violence, or simply ensure the group’s termination.

The sensitivity surrounding this issue is such that any perceived straying from that script is met with outrage. When Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero said, on October 20, that attempts to encourage ETA to declare a more convincing ceasefire by Batasuna and other izquierda abertzale radical nationalist groups “will not be in vain”, there was an uproar. Although he had said in the same breath that such moves had been “insufficient” so far, the opposition PP and conservative media saw this as a sign of weakness in government anti-terror policy. “I hope that the prime minister’s mistakes on anti-terrorism are not in vain,” responded PP leader Mariano Rajoy.

Socialist Party deputy leader José Blanco even publicly upbraided party colleague Jesús Eguiguren, telling the Basque Socialist to “quieten down” after he described the September 5 ceasefire and recent developments as “historic” and called for the release from prison of Batasuna leader Arnaldo Otegi.

Much of this caution stems from the last truce, in 2006, which effectively ended when ETA killed two people in Madrid airport’s car park with a bomb. That attack made Zapatero’s optimism look like naivety and ensured he could never be quite as bold again when dealing with ETA.

But while that failed peace process altered the government’s approach to ETA, it also put strain on the terrorist group’s relationship with Batasuna and the izquierda abertzale as a whole. The changing dynamic of this relationship is one of the hallmarks of the current process, in which the political wing is showing an unprecedented willingness to resolve the Basque problem through purely democratic means and persuade ETA that the violence must end with a unilateral gesture.

“Batasuna have moved relatively fast to a position where it is difficult to see anything other than a scenario in which if ETA goes back to violence, they are opposed to it,” Paddy Woodworth, author of Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy and The Basque Country, told Iberosphere.

The shift in the izquierda abertzale’s position away from violence is apparent in the series of declarations and documents it has issued over the last 12 months; and the extent to which Batasuna’s relationship with ETA has changed was highlighted by a recent El País interview with Otegi, who is serving a prison sentence for defying the law that banned his party from political activity.

No condemnation

“We’ve spent years using our political thinking to influence decisions that allow the opening up of a new phase with the disappearance of political violence,” the Batasuna leader says in the long, questionnaire-style interview. And, going distinctly further than ETA did in its recent ceasefire announcement, he says: “…all weapons must disappear definitively from the Basque political equation […] There is no path towards independence other than that which is developed through pacific and democratic means. We don’t see the recourse to armed violence as compatible with the independence strategy.”

Otegi also says the izquierda abertzale would “oppose” any future murders by ETA, which has been severely weakened by police pressure and has not killed in Spain since July 2009. Crucially, however, he does not use the word “condemn”, which mainstream Spanish political parties and the government are demanding.

One of the main problems for the Spanish state as it contemplates the possibility of a convincing ETA ceasefire (if Spaniards believe such a thing can exist), is that Batasuna’s decision to take the lead in its clinch with the group makes it harder than ever to know who to talk to, should the time for talks arrive. Radical Basque nationalists like to compare their campaign with that of Irish Republicanism and Otegi often invokes the Mitchell Principles used to resolve that conflict. However, Woodworth explains the difficulty.

“Sinn Féin was effectively the IRA, or the leadership of the IRA, and so the value of that was that you knew, when you talked to Sinn Féin, that you were talking to the IRA – they weren’t messenger boys,” he says. “That’s not the case with Batasuna and ETA. There has been a large problem in that ETA people have been sitting in France, in Switzerland, in Venezuela, or wherever else, so they are totally divorced from reality on the ground in the Basque Country.”

The new reality: Islamic terrorism and Irish peace

The reality influencing the likes of Otegi included widespread revulsion at terrorism caused by the September 11 attacks in the United States and the 2004 train bombings by Islamists in Madrid. The success of the Irish peace process also gave many Basques hope that bombs and guns could be a thing of the past in their own region.

But ETA’s inability to digest the repercussions of these events distanced it from Batasuna and many ordinary, pro-independence Basques. ETA’s breaking of the last ceasefire weakened its hand enormously by undermining the trust of Basques and Spaniards in general and its insistence on concessions from the authorities ahead of any possible disarmament now looks utterly unrealistic. If peace comes, it will be because of a climb-down by ETA rather than the kind of negotiation process that was on the table in 2006 – the continued arrests of suspected ETA members shows how unwilling the government is to give ground.

While next year’s local elections are a key factor, nor can the 2012 general elections be ignored. The government and PP are upholding an unsteady accord on terror-related issues but already cracks are starting to appear, and there are fears the opposition will use terrorism for political purposes, as it has done before at the cost of bi-party unity on the issue.

Conflict resolution expert Brian Currin, who has maintained regular contact with ETA and Batasuna, has predicted a major announcement by the terrorist group before Christmas. This may or may not be the big, unilateral gesture the whole of Spain is waiting for, but whatever happens, the complex, mysterious relationship between the group and its political wing will remain under intense scrutiny.





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Published: Nov 5 2010
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=1605
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