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In Basque Country, ETA’s silence is democracy’s gain

A year on from the separatist group's ceasefire announcement, ETA is weaker than ever and a peace process looks highly unlikely. But with the emergence of a new nationalist coalition, the Basque region is politically healthier.


Over a year without murders or attacks, a drop in street violence and an end to the extortion of Basque businesses. Looking at those bald facts, ETA would seem to have come a long way since making its ceasefire announcement in September 2010 – an announcement that the organisation hoped would lead to a new peace process with the Spanish government.

ETA: Whistling into the wind of public suspicion.

ETA: Whistling into the wind of public suspicion.

But ETA’s ambition of returning to the negotiating table currently looks as difficult to achieve as ever. The last year has seen some extraordinary developments in the Basque Country, yet the terrorist group appears to have been marginalised from the most momentous events.

That ceasefire declaration itself was symptomatic of ETA’s problems. The separatist group took the step following pressure from its Basque political support, the izquierda abertzale. The statement, when it came, had long been anticipated. But it was too vague and weak in its wording to satisfy Spanish public opinion or mainstream politicians, saying that it had “stopped carrying out offensive armed attacks.”

The announcement also called on the Spanish government and the international community to respond to this move towards peace with initiatives of their own. South African human rights lawyer Brian Currin optimistically played up ETA’s peaceful intentions. But one of the main points of discord between the separatists and the government is that the latter refuses to see this as a matter for the international community comparable to, say, the Irish peace process.

In fact, any talk of a potential “peace process” in the Basque Country now looks unrealistic. This is partly because of the political climate in Madrid, where the opposition Popular Party has frequently sought to show the Socialist government as soft on – or even complicit with – the terrorists, despite record numbers of arrests of ETA members in recent years.

But ETA effectively destroyed its own prospects of negotiating an end to its existence in 2006, when it terminated a previous ceasefire by bombing Madrid’s Barajas airport car park, killing two people. It was the last straw for a government that had staked substantial political capital on reaching a definitive peace accord and for a Spanish public that was already wary of ETA’s trustworthiness.

In January of this year a renewed commitment to the ceasefire came, with more specific wording. But the group was now whistling into the wind of public suspicion, and, even, worse, indifference.

A year on from the 2010 truce announcement , Spanish media tell us that ETA has only around 50 active members, while several hundred others are in prison. Also, its finances are in turmoil, partly due to the end of its extortion campaign (what it calls “the revolutionary tax”). With the group so heavily infiltrated and Spanish and French security forces working together to such effect, ETA is in no position to make demands. The government says the only announcement it now awaits is the organisation’s disbandment. With ETA so weak, it’s fair to wonder how capable it is of carrying out attacks if it wanted to.

Goodbye ETA, hello Bildu

But while Basque nationalism’s violent wing has been virtually eliminated, its political expression has flourished in recent months. The izquierda abertzale-aligned party Sortu was banned from running in May’s regional elections, but its sister coalition, Bildu, was legalised after a legal wrangle.

Bildu’s strong performance in the spring elections left it controlling some key parts of the Basque region and Navarra. This has outraged many in Madrid, who insist it is merely a front for ETA. Bildu’s banning of bodyguards who protect politicians from putative ETA attacks from public buildings and its cosiness with relatives of ETA prisoners have fuelled the anger of its critics in the capital.

Such controversial and often provocative behaviour has also dismayed many of those who believed Bildu deserved the chance to be part of Basque politics. But putting aside the party’s lack of tact and the histrionics of Madrid politicians who feel obligated to attack anything that whiffs of Basque radicalism, the northern region looks a decidedly more democratic and peaceful place than it was a year ago.

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Published: Sep 9 2011
Category: Politics
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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3 Comments for “In Basque Country, ETA’s silence is democracy’s gain”

  1. If I may add information coming from one of your competitors, the BBC, here is a very interesting account:

    Note especially “The people of Catalonia had just managed to win more autonomy from Madrid, and separatists there had no army of bombers and gunmen.” and “After all, the politicians in Madrid had a ready-made excuse for not allowing a referendum on independence.

    That excuse was Eta violence. So what if that excuse was taken away?”

    This is what is happening now by ways of Bildu. ETA is finished “militarily” speaking. What one has to insist on, not only in Spain but also and maybe even especially abroad, is that Bildu’s foremost obligation is to repent. To close that awful chapter. To repent. Publicly, and over and over again. Until they get tired of it and beyond.

    This is what Bildu is good for as far as the rest of the world is concerned. Then may they also represent their constituents.

    • It’s a good point that the complete end of ETA does create a problem for those who fear Basque nationalism: suddenly demands for independence look less extremist. There are those who therefore claim that Madrid does not in fact want to eliminate ETA altogether, for that very reason.

      As for Bildu, I don’t ever expect to see them “repent” as such. Doing so would be an admittance that they and ETA are the same thing. A specific condemnation of ETA violence, however, would be a more realistic start and a constructive move.

      • I’d settle for the condemnation. But if they want to liken victims of ETA and victims of state repression, as it seems, I’m seriously turned off. One of the tactical aims of terrorism is to provoke the state into overreacting and committing atrocious acts.

        What Madrid (really) wants is out of my reach. Lots of theories can be build on assumptions. The right way to go is always the right way to go.

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