26 August 2004 Edition

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Basques still seek peace process

AFTER enduring eight years of repression under the right-wing government leaded by Jose María Aznar, the return to power of the Socialist Party in Spain has not brought any noticeable change to the repression of the Basque left-wing pro-independence movement.

First, the new Spanish PM, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, failed to answer an offer of negotiations from the armed Basque separatist group ETA. Then, the Socialist Party asked for the banning of a Basque alternative pro-independence grouping from the European elections. But, though these signs are not very positive, the Basque pro-independence movement still believes that the solution to the conflict with the Spanish state could be around the corner.

"We are living in times of change in the Basque Country. For good or bad, it is clear to everybody that the coming years will be crucial in the resolution of the Basque conflict," explains Gorka Elejabarrieta, a member of a delegation from Askapena — a Basque internationalist organisation — that has been touring Ireland for the past month giving updates on the situation in the Basque Country. The ten-member delegation travelled to Belfast, Derry, Donegal, Galway, Cork, Wexford, Waterford and Dublin, and staged awareness raising pickets and public meetings along the way.

Links with Ireland

The links between Ireland and the Basque Country remain strong. In the bad times, when Sinn Féin was shunned by most political organisations around Europe, left-wing pro-independence party Herri Batasuna showed strong support for republicans. When the Good Friday Agreement was signed, Basque nationalists looked to Ireland for inspiration and they still believe that the Irish model of conflict resolution could be the answer to their confrontation with the Spanish state.

Successive Spanish governments, however, keep denying that there is even a political problem about the sovereignty of the Basque Country. There have been negotiations but they were scuppered by the Spanish government's lack of willingness to reach agreement. Spanish politicians keep pointing to the increasing power of Basque devolved government. However, the Basque pro-independence movement says that this government model is a farce, as Basques lack what citizens in the north of Ireland have: the right to self-determination contained in the Good Friday Agreement - the right to decide under what administration they want to live.

"A huge majority of Basques are in favour of having the right to decide their future", explains Elejabarrieta. Parties like the Basque Christian Democrats of the PNV, or the Social Democrat EA or Spanish left-wing Izquierda Unida have presented proposals for the first time for the resolution of the conflict. However, it is very much up to the Spanish establishment to decide whether a solution is possible in the short term.

Repression

The repression suffered by the Basque pro-independence movement during the eight years of right-wing government in Spain — since the Popular Party took over the reins of the country in 1996 — could be compared to that imposed by Franco's dictatorship. Herri Batasuna and other political movements with similar aims, like EH, Batasuna and AuB, were banned by the PP government, with the support of the Socialists.

Basque separatist leaders were imprisoned or threatened with ongoing court actions. They have been unable to run candidates for the provincial, general or local elections. Some have lost their civil rights through the courts and they are not able to stand as candidates for election.

Aznar's government, again with the support of the Socialist Party, carried through parliament a bill that allows a ban on any party that does not condemn violence. "It is true that Batasuna has never condemned ETA's violence, but it has never approved it or promoted it either," says Elejabarrieta. "We have always tried to find a political solution to the conflict. But even considering there may be an ethical or political dilemma to our position, that can never be a reason to ban a political party and ignore its political mandate.

"The new law also states that any political party that defends ideas opposed to the principles of the Spanish Constitution could be banned. We are a party in favour of the independence of the Basque Country and one of the principles of the constitution is the unity of the Spanish State. But according to this article, the Spanish party Izquierda Unida could be banned as well, as it is by definition a republican party and against monarchy — which is also enshrined in the constitution.

"And the same will apply to the Catalan party Esquerra Republicana, which favours Catalan independence, and to many others in Galicia, Castilla, etc. In effect, this law could be used by the government to get rid of any dissident political movement."

Banning organisations

The anti-nationalist repression also extends to any organisation who dares to encourage the use of the Basque language or pride in Basque culture. Two newspapers have been closed — Egin in 1998 and Egunkaria in 2003. A radio station was also banned — Egin Irratia. The leaders of the youth Basque movement were imprisoned. AEK, an organisation that teaches the Basque language to adults, is under investigation. A civil disobedience movement was banned and its members were imprisoned.

The last straw, however, was when Aznar's government tried to blame the Basque movement for the bombings on 11 March this year in Madrid. Aznar knew that if the Spanish voters thought the bombs were ETA's, his party would win the elections again and they would have had a free hand to deal with Basque nationalists in his repressive style.

"The government's manipulation of information was terrible," says Elejabarrieta. "Two Basque militants were killed as a consequence of the climate created in the aftermath of the bombs in Madrid. One was shot by police while he was working in his bakery. A second died of a heart attack due to the police handling of a demonstration to protest the first man's death."

However, as news filtered out that the bombs were a response to the Spanish presence in Iraq and Aznar's unconditional support for that war, a Socialist victory became inevitable.

Sceptical but optimistic

Nevertheless, Elejabarrieta says Basques are both sceptical and optimistic about the new Spanish Government's approach to the Basque conflict.

"We are optimistic because it cannot be worse than the PP. The last eight years have been very hard for Basques in terms of repression. So we are happy because People's Party won't be in government for at least another four years.

"But we are quite sceptical about the Socialist Party. We have had a socialist government before. That government was responsible for the creation of the death squads that killed so many Basques in the 1980s. Many of their leaders had to face criminal charges for kidnapping, murder and torture. So as you can imagine, our trust in the Socialist Party is not very strong."

The fight against the banning of the Basque pro-independence party Batasuna has been taken to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, all Spanish judicial avenues having been exhausted.

The court's decision is expected by 2007 and Elejabarrieta, like many others on the Basque nationalist left, is confident the court will rule against the Spanish state.


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