Leading hawk seems to have become a dove on path to Basque independence


INTERVIEW: There will be no return to violence after Eta’s ceasefire this time, an influential Basque radical leader insists

RUFI ETXEBERRIA is uniquely placed to read the frequently obscure signals that the Spanish authorities and the Basque terrorist group Eta send to each other when a peace process is in the air.

Born in the picturesque Basque village of Oiartzun 50 years ago, he rose in his youth to the leadership of the Izquierda Abertzale (Patriotic Left), the pro-independence political movement associated with Eta. He is now regarded as the movement’s most influential figure not currently in jail.

He is the only such leader who has been a close observer or participant in talks with Spanish government representatives and other parties during all three previous major ceasefires, starting in 1989. He was regarded by Madrid as a “hawk” during the 2006 talks with the Socialist Party (PSOE), which collapsed after Eta bombed Barajas airport at the end of that year.

Not long afterwards he was arrested by the controversial investigating magistrate, Baltasar Garzon. He was charged with trying to reconstitute the banned Batasuna party, regarded by the Spanish judiciary as an integral part of Eta. He was released early this year with the charges still unproven, having served the maximum period of “preventive detention” permitted without trial.

Since then, he has been a key player in a series of moves that appear to have transformed the Izquierda Abertzale from Eta’s political mouthpiece into a voice that is insisting that the terrorist group shut up shop, and that Basque independence can only be effectively pursued in the total absence of violence.

The hawk seems to have become a dove. This process culminated in the ceasefire announced by Eta on Sunday, September 5th.

However, the Spanish government has dismissed the Eta ceasefire statement as “insufficient”, and continues to vigorously pursue former Batasuna members, banning a radical demonstration last Saturday and arresting a dozen political militants allegedly linked to Eta last Tuesday.

Etxeberria declined a phone interview with The Irish Times, but agreed to answer written questions.

He rejects the widely held view that Eta’s statement, which does not specify whether the new truce is permanent and irreversible, falls short of the expectations, not just of the Spanish government, but of the Izquierda Abertzale itself. He points out that this truce, unlike its predecessors, is “unilateral and unconditional”, and is not the outcome of any prior agreement with the government or political parties.

He says the ceasefire provides “an essential context for dialogue and negotiation towards the resolution of the conflict”.

But does the statement meet the criteria of the Brussels Declaration, a call last March by international figures including Nelson Mandela and Mary Robinson for a “permanent and internationally verifiable ceasefire”, and welcomed by Batasuna?

He concedes that it does not. “Batasuna continues to appeal to Eta to take on board the full contents of the declaration, and that means making it explicit that its ceasefire is permanent and verifiable.” He then spells out that he believes it is the political movement, and by implication not Eta, that will be “sovereign” and decide strategy.

“The Izquierda Abertzale absolutely does not envisage a future scenario in which there are violent actions.” And if there are violent attacks, he continues, those who carry them out “will place themselves outside and against the new strategy adopted by our members”.

Etxeberria insists that this new strategy, developed through rank-and-file assemblies in every town and village in the Basque Country, involves an “irreversible commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic methods”. And he adds that Eta, as long ago as last January, had responded that “the Izquierda Abertzale has spoken, and we make its position our own”.

Since the ceasefire sceptics in Madrid and Bilbao have replied that such statements are a subterfuge, a medium-term gambit to persuade the courts to legalise Batasuna so that it can participate in next year’s local elections, while an exhausted and broken Eta rests and rearms to fight another day.

But Etxeberria’s language is remarkably clear-cut, and he and his colleagues must know that if they renege on their words this time around, whatever credibility they may retain with Basque voters will be shattered for good.

He dismisses well-informed reports that many, and perhaps most, members of Eta are opposed to the ceasefire. Such reports, he says, are black propaganda from “securocrats with a vested interested in continuing the conflict”.

Etxeberria appears sanguine about the Spanish government’s very lukewarm response to the ceasefire, and in a parody of that response says that Madrid should “take steps, even if they are insufficient steps” to engage with a peace process.

The government and courts, he adds, are “irresponsible” in resorting to the “comfortable inertia” of continuing to ban demonstrations and prosecute radicals as if nothing has changed. Last Saturday’s ban, he says, “was one more instance of the strategy of violence which the state imposes on the Basque Country”.

He claims that Eta has created great expectations in Basque society with this ceasefire, and that “nobody has the right to rob the hope of peace and democracy from Basque society”. One has to wonder why Eta did not grasp that simple point 40 years ago.

However, there is a reassuring lack of threat in Etxeberria’s current discourse. “We want to hear the government recognise the national rights of the Basque Country, its right to self-determination, we want to hear that it will respect what ever the majority of the Basques may decide democratically.” This is a far cry from Batasuna’s ultimatums of yesteryear.

While he stresses the Izquierda Abertzale remains committed to the ultimate goal of Basque independence, he insists that his movement respects all other political options. Most critically of all, he reiterates that any intransigence by the State will not provoke a return to violence: “We will respond with patience. We stand at a defining moment. We cannot allow it to collapse. The Izquierda Abertzale is committed to the democratic process and will not depart from this course. Our mandate and commitment is unequivocal and sovereign.”

Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish DemocracyThe Basque Country