Political wing looks to Eta march in Bilbao as it awaits word on ceasefire


IT HAS been a long, cold Christmas for Basque pro-independence radicals.

They had clearly expected that Basque terrorist group Eta would announce a “permanent, unilateral and internationally verifiable ceasefire” during this season.

Rufi Etxeberria, a key figure in the banned Batasuna party, once a hawk and now a dove, had assured supporters in mid-December that a statement along these lines would come “over the Christmas holidays”.

Another veteran Batasuna leader, Arnaldo Otegi, told the Wall Street Journal – from jail – on December 28th that the party “renounced all violence that seeks to attain political aims”.

That unprecedented interview appears now like a belated and futile attempt at megaphone diplomacy to Eta from an international platform.

The silence from their armed comrades seems to have left Batasuna hanging out to dry, as the final Christmas festival, the Day of the Three Kings, passed on Thursday without a word from Eta.

One significant window remains open: a major demonstration in support of Eta’s 700-plus prisoners is planned for today in Bilbao. It may be that the group has chosen today to make its definitive announcement and that, as you read this, a final ceasefire statement may already be online and on air.

If it is not, however, many supporters will march this afternoon with heavy hearts, fearing that the prisoners, too, have been abandoned by their own organisation.

Continuing silence from Eta will have very challenging consequences for Batasuna. The deadline for completing the process of re-registering as a legal political party falls at the end of this month. Failure to meet it means that the party will not be able to stand in May’s municipal elections, depriving it yet again of participation in political institutions.

The Spanish government and the courts have made it clear that Eta’s ambiguous ceasefire statement of last September 5th falls far short of requirements to re-legalise Batasuna, long regarded as the terrorists’ political wing.

That leaves Batasuna with the option of publicly breaking with Eta and explicitly condemning its actions. However, Batasuna leaders have worked very hard to avoid such a split. They present the shift towards peaceful methods as a coherent and seamless strategy of the entire radical pro-independence movement. A rupture with a still-active Eta, however marginalised the terrorists might become, would rob Batasuna of much of its political identity.

Elaborate choreography has been employed, and a great deal of political capital invested, in persuading Eta to finally exit the Basque stage, 50 years after it was founded under the Franco dictatorship.

Mr Otegi privately recognised that the group’s bombing of Madrid airport, which ended negotiations during the relatively promising 2006 ceasefire, was disastrous. The Batasuna leadership became convinced that Eta, clearly crippled by police successes, had become an obstacle to independence.

They have been supported internationally by the so-called “Brussels group”, including Mary Robinson, John Hume and Desmond Tutu. Last March, the group called for Eta to declare a “permanent, fully verified ceasefire” and an “appropriate response” from the Spanish government.

The difficulty with this choreography is that two of the central potential partners – Eta and a deeply sceptical Spanish government – are not dancing.

Just why Eta is taking so long to take to the floor is puzzling. A professional peace process mediator, who was involved in the 2006 talks but who has stayed clear of the current impasse, told this reporter: “It’s hard to really know what these guys are up to. They probably don’t know themselves.”