8 April 2004 Edition

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Basque leader hopes for conflict resolution

Arnaldo Otegi is the main spokesperson of the Basque left pro-independence party Batasuna. He joined the executive of the party in very traumatic circumstances, after the members of the previous executive were rounded up and jailed for trying to publicise an ETA peace offer in the late 1990s. Since then, Otegi — himself a former political prisoner — has experienced the repressive policies of the Spanish administration, from the banning of Batasuna to the criminalisation of Basque political, social and cultural organisations.

In an interview with Basque daily GARA a week after the March Madrid bombs, that killed 191 people and injured 1,500, Otegi discussed the election results and the prospects for building a conflict resolution process.

He pointed out that the previous government's offensive against rights and liberties in the Basque Country had failed. "The Basque pro-independence left has been able to confront criminalisation and widespread repression without losing its grassroots base or its fundamental values," he said. "And we will not lose them now that we find ourselves at a crossroads."

Reacting to recent comments of French President Jacques Chirac, who talked about the need to solve the root causes behind the Basque conflict, Otegi said he was convinced that this was not an accidental comment. "I know that in the Spanish and French states, as in the rest of the European States, the idea of conflict resolution would be broadly supported by the people. The impact of the events in Madrid has been so enormous that its effects will be felt in all political quarters. That's the reason behind those words."

He called on the Spanish and French states and on all political representatives to work "to initiate a dialogue so there is a solution to the conflict between the Basque country and Spain and France, and respect for the Basque people's right of self-determination".

Commenting on the victory of the Socialist Party in the Spanish elections, Otegi said he would judge the Socialist Party by its actions.

There is speculation that the Socialist Party could decide to release General Galindo, who was one of the main figures behind the dirty war against the Basque resistance movement during previous socialist administrations in the 1980s. "Everyone knows that the Basque pro-independence left has had very bad experiences in its relationship with the Socialist Party," said Otegi. "However, we yearn for a Spanish statesperson who will respect the decisions of the Basques. It is obvious that we have reasons to be suspicious. We know what they did when they were previously in power. We hope things may have changed within the party but it is the same party that not so long ago proposed and supported the Popular Party government's repressive policies against the Basque social, political and cultural movements.

"We know the Socialist Party's past actions have been very damaging for the Basque Country. What we are asking from them is to rise to the challenge in order to build a political alternative to war and violence, an alternative based on dialogue and conflict resolution.

"So, if the Socialist Party is willing to find a solution that will translate into tangible measures, we will be ready to engage in dialogue with anybody about anything. We still maintain that respect for the Basque country as a whole and its right to self-determination is the only way to find a solution to the conflict."

Turning to the Basque strategy in a negotiating scenario, Otegi said that the crisis of the devolved-government model is at the centre of the political debate in the Basque Country. The previous government wanted to restrict the degree of autonomy afforded by the Spanish state to regions like Catalonia and the Basque Country, while these nations were seeking a renegotiation to gain more freedom.

"We say there is an opportunity for change," said Otegi. "That does not mean just repeating what it was done in 1977 [after Franco's death] and just updating the same model. That would only mean that the PNV [the conservative Basque nationalist party] would continue to simply administrate the Basque Country for another 25 years, and the conflict would also go on for another 25 years.

"This is an opportunity for all those in favour of the right to self-determination to sit around the negotiating table to present our proposals and agree among ourselves what we want to present to the Madrid government. This is an opportunity to engage in dialogue as the nation that we are.

"I want to believe that there are clear-sighted people in the Socialist Party who know that the devolved-government model and the brutal policies of repression have failed to solve the problem. The Basque nationalist left reiterates that we are ready to find a solution. However, if they opt for the formulas of the past, they should be aware that they will still have to deal with us, as we will continue our struggle."

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