Signs of chill in Basque region’s climate of peace

Is there really a risk of a split in Eta and a return to armed activity?

It is now more than 18 months since terrorist group Eta announced the "definitive end" of its armed campaign for an independent Basque state, in what was widely seen as a historic move.

But news coming out of the Basque Country in recent weeks has often seemed to contradict the notion that the region in northern Spain has returned to peace and normality after four decades of violence.

On May 30th, Basque nationalist labour unions staged a strike across the region against spending cuts, during which there was a handful of violent incidents that recalled the kale borroka, or pro-independence street violence of Eta's heyday.

Supporters of the strike threw Molotov cocktails at ATMs in the town of Hernani and elsewhere public transport services were sabotaged.


The climate of peace had already chilled slightly in early May, when Eta issued a communique criticising the Spanish government for “failing to adopt any specific commitments” on negotiations since the group formally ended its violence in October 2011.

Perhaps more worrying for the authorities, there have even been reports in recent weeks suggesting Eta may not be as dormant as had been believed.

At the end of May, high court lawyer Carlos Bautista warned that the interior ministry had information showing that the lack of negotiations with Eta would "lead to a breakaway or a split [in the organisation] and a return to armed activity".

The ministry swiftly denied the claim.

'No peace process'
Kepa Aulestia, a columnist who follows Basque issues for the Vocento media group, says Eta's hopes of sitting down to negotiate with the government are overly optimistic.

“There is no peace process as such, if you understand a peace process as being dialogue and bilateral understanding,” he says.

“It would be absurd to negotiate the end of something which has already ended. In that sense there is a big difference with [the peace process in] Ireland.”

By the time Eta announced the end of its armed campaign, it had been crippled by constant arrests of its members and leaders. Having caused the deaths of more than 800 people since the late 1960s, its most recent killing on Spanish soil was in 2009.

Many believe the next logical move for the group is its long-awaited dissolution. In the meantime, the organisation seems determined to wring concessions from the government of Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, particularly with regard to the 550 or so Eta members held in Spanish jails.

Pernando Barrena, a spokesman for pro-independence party Sortu, says releasing prisoners who are ill or who have completed most of their sentences would be an obvious gesture. The Basque regional administration recently outlined initiatives along these lines, although they lack the crucial endorsement of the central government.

Barrena accuses the governing Partido Popular in Madrid of deliberately allowing fears of Eta's return to simmer for its own political ends.

However, with the right- wing media and terrorist victims’ groups pressuring Rajoy not to make concessions, the prime minister has little room for manoeuvre.

Days numbered
Yet while any formal peace process seems to be conspicuous by its absence, Barrena insists "there is no possibility" that Eta will kill again.

Long-time observers of the Basque Country admit there is always a chance renegade Eta members will break the truce and return to violence. However, the consensus is that the organisation’s days are numbered.

Away from the political arena, there was a telling development on June 1st, when Gesto por la Paz, an independent group campaigning for peace in the Basque Country, announced its disbandment after 28 years because it no longer believed Eta posed a threat.