The Basque Odyssey – OpEd

By Ivan Ureta and Mohammad Aslam

There is, if not a remedy for the violence perpetuated by Basque separatists, a palliative for the situation.

The future solution for ETA-inspired Basque militancy in Spain seems to be determined and handcuffed by a long history of mutual distrust; one that’s been highly profitable politically speaking for the parties involved in the process.

Originally conceived as a movement to promote traditional Basque culture and independence from Spain in 1959, the Basque separatist group ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom) had evolved by 1968 into a full blown militant organisation – replete with popular support, finances and sophisticated weaponry. Over the next four decades, its intermittent campaign of assassinations and bombings in Basque populated areas of France and Spain, not to mention other parts of Spanish Kingdom, have killed nearly 900 people, and injured and terrorized a great deal more.

The roadmap and counter roadmap for solutions to the conflict seem to have always been developed at the expense of the main loser: the entire civil society. Since 1981 when ETA’s political-cum-military movement announced the first truce, to date ten failed attempts have ensued. These failures aborted the way for a durable solution and blurred a future for attaining common consensus.

According to numerous estimates, the overall costs of Spain’s counter-terrorism endeavors amounted to 9.000 million Euro/year between 1993 and 2002 – at the height of ETA’s campaign. Beyond moral and socio-political concerns, strong economic reasons would have advised an honest and definitive mutual effort for solving this old scourge, instead of ‘administrating’ it.

The latest ETA’s truce announcement – January 2011- raised again optimistic and pessimistic voices. This is the complementary dualism that represents the two faces of this dichotomy, the two main ingredients of this ‘political business’. In the midst of this highly skeptical and ambiguous scenario, the latest Spanish municipal elections of May 2011 developed. The pre-electoral period indirectly served also to evaluate the health of the Spanish democratic system. It almost failed.

Political forces, not only in the Basque country, had a good occasion in searching for new strategies in the context of the latest truce. It was a good moment for gathering a consensus by manipulating a subtle balance. To fill the gap of the illegalized Batasuna, (long considered ETA’s political arm) they presented a new party, Sortu. The aim was simple: to make preparations for opening a democratic political process.

However the word Sortu, in Basque, has some contradictory meanings: to birth/to arise/to grow and to drowse/to become insensitive. The future of this new initiative, firmly and rapidly illegalized by Spain’s Supreme Court on the 23rd of March 2011, was the short history of the second meaning.

Sortu’s representatives ensured that the new party would develop its activity “rejecting violence as instrument of political action or as a means for achieving politic objectives … and contributing to the definitive and total disappearance of any kind of violence, particularly, ETA ”. Quick reactions from the Spanish government aimed at illegalizing this initiative on the basis of a long history of mistrust. A report elaborated by the Spanish police and Guardia Civil, points out that the concept of a “democratic process”, used by Sortu; has been commonly used by ETA over the last 15 years in order to attain politic objectives. This report ensured that the patriotic left party’s objectives coincided with those defended by ETA: opening a negotiation process on the self-determination and territoriality. The Spanish police highlighted that the patriotic left stated already in the past, several times, a political will for developing pacific means, but this was a trick, an instrumental declaration.

Two days after this illegalization, a new coalition named Bildu (Basque for ‘to gather’) was presented on the 4th of April. This time, the coalition was integrated by acknowledged and respected political parties: EA, Alternatiba and Independents. This was sought skeptically, again, by Spanish traditional parties – PP and PSOE – as the Batasuna’s plan B for participating in the municipal elections. A new reactive process to block this proposal was rapidly launched. After a short time, Spanish Supreme Court issued the illegalization. This happened on the 2nd of May 2011. Three days after a contradictory sentence was released by the Constitutional Court and Bildu took part in the elections. The PNV gathered the thirty percent of the votes but Bildu’s political representation overcame any other political force.

Unexpected result? Unwanted outcome? The end of the ‘political business’?

This civic response corresponds to the willingness of the Basques to open up a democratic process, despite the opposition which is largely based on historical evidences and old fears. Bildu’s pro-independence electoral success, coupled with the thirty percent of the regional Basque vote won by the Basque Nationalist Party PNV, is indicative of the Basque people’s exclusive recourse to political methods to achieve their independence.

The 43- year old campaign for an independent homeland that was spearheaded by the Basque separatists group ETA, despite a series of setbacks overt the years that have brought it to a significant standstill, is unlikely to die down any time soon – at least politically.

This article was written by Ivan Ureta and Mohammad Aslam. They are both Ph.D candidates at the department of Middle-East & Mediterranean Studies, King’s College London.


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