End of Eta's war heralds tougher test for Madrid


THE BIG PICTURE:The peace strategy of the banned Basque political party Batasuna could prove a bigger challenge for Spanish democracy than Eta’s bombs and bullets, but the toughest test is for Eta, writes PADDY WOODWORTH

THE LATEST Basque peace process seems very awkward at the moment, like a tango in which one partner – the pro-independence movement – is making all the moves, while Madrid treats its advances with something close to contempt.

However, this may not be a sign of weakness or imminent collapse. It may be simply a reminder that this process is of a very different kind to what we have known in Northern Ireland, or indeed to its two predecessors over the last 12 years in the Basque Country.

The Basque radical pro-independence movement, centred on the banned political party Batasuna, has embarked on a completely new strategy. This shift is deeply challenging for its comrades in the terrorist group Eta.

But, if successful, it could ultimately prove equally challenging for the authorities in Madrid.

After several years of intense debate, Batasuna has concluded that association with an armed group is a road-block, not a short-cut, on the path to independence. And so, when Eta made its ambiguous declaration, on September 5th last, that it had “ceased offensive operations” – but not, as it later clarified, “defensive” ones – the Spanish government was not alone in saying that this statement was “insufficient”.

In a series of subsequent interviews, veteran Batasuna leaders like Rufi Etxeberria and Arnaldo Otegi have insisted that Eta must now make its ceasefire “unilateral, permanent and verifiable by the international community”. That word “unilateral” is important. All earlier Eta ceasefires have involved previously negotiated concessions from the Spanish government.

What is completely unprecedented today is the clear message from Etxeberria and Otegi that, if Eta should return to violence now, it will do so in the teeth of opposition from Batasuna, and find itself completely isolated.

While Batasuna is obviously calling for a positive response from the Spanish government, there is no longer any suggestion that such a response is a condition for peace.

For most of Eta’s history, the men and women with the pistols have exercised an iron control over their political allies. Now, with Eta’s operational capacity crippled by the police, and its support in Basque communities on the floor, that position has at last reversed.

For many observers, this simply means that Eta has been defeated, and there is some truth in that, at least in the short term. But the Batasuna leadership has realised that this crisis is also an opportunity to mobilise in a different way. They are sensing a groundswell from many radical nationalists who have long been alienated by Eta’s brutal political criminality.

Like the joke about Sinn Féin and Sunningdale, you could accuse the Batasuna leadership of being slow learners, but there is little doubt now that the lesson has finally sunk in.

Whether a restive and splintered Eta will accept Batasuna’s new position remains an open question. But its members must fear that, if they do not respect the wishes of their political constituency this time around, their status in their own heartlands will shift from that of a respected ‘vanguard’ to that of dissident pariahs.

If this strategy beds down, and Eta really does exit from the Basque chess board, then the new situation could force the Spanish nation state to face a question that the terrorists have postponed since Spain became a democracy: how will it deal with a substantial unarmed movement unequivocally committed to Basque independence?

Even in the short term, the Spanish prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE), has very good reason to be cautious. Beset by economic woes, and having just reshuffled his minority government, he cannot afford to take many risks for peace.

Courageously, he launched the 2005-2006 peace process himself, in the first year of his first administration. And he found himself badly burned, caught between the twin fires of an intransigent Eta, and irresponsible attacks from the main parliamentary group, the ultraconservative Spanish nationalists of the Partido Popular (PP).

“Cautious”, however, would be a very inadequate word to describe the strategy of the Spanish government and judiciary since the ceasefire. “Aggressive” would be a lot closer to the mark.

The weekend after the ceasefire statement, a broadly backed demonstration in Bilbao, calling for respect for all political options in the Basque Country, including independence was banned. Usually, such a ban would have precipitated a riot. However, Batasuna showed unaccustomed restraint, and told its members to stay off the streets.

Only days later, nine Basques allegedly linked to the “political leadership” of Eta were arrested. All of them claim that they were tortured during the five-day period they were held incommunicado. Again, there were no street protests in response. Since then, there have been two further mass arrests of political militants, the most recent late last week.

If Eta has put its foot on the brake, Madrid has hit the accelerator. These arrests raise three very difficult issues that have arisen repeatedly in the Basque conflict. The first is the assertion by the state that many, if not most, pro-independence organisations are associated with terrorism.

The second is the constantly repeated claim by arrested radicals that they have been tortured. The third is how the Spanish media reports the conflict.

Since the 1990s, it has been the strategy of Spanish governments – both PSOE and PP – and of the highly politicised Spanish judiciary, to use something very close to the principle of guilt by association in dealing with radical Basque groups.

This has led to the closure of newspapers and radio stations, the banning of numerous political parties and civil society groups, and the jailing of their leaders, on the grounds that they are in some way aiding and abetting terrorism. Some of these cases, especially the closure of the newspaper Egunkaria and the prosecution of pacifists from the Joxemi Zumalabe Foundation have been shown in court to be totally unfounded – but only after innocent individuals have spent long periods in prison.

The centrepiece of this strategy has been the banning of Batasuna, a party which has enjoyed the support of between 8 and 20 per cent of the Basque electorate since 1978. Batasuna has certainly always been very close to the thinking of Eta, but no clear organisational links have ever been established in the courts.

Instead, it has been banned under a 2002 law that prevents parties that refuse to condemn terrorist acts from participating in elections. The concept of banning a political party for what it does not, rather than what it does, seems a disturbing precedent, though the law has been endorsed by EU courts.

Not only is Zapatero showing little inclination to relax the ban on Batasuna, now that there are no new acts of violence to condemn, his party is working with the PP to toughen the ban.

As for torture, it is undoubtedly true that many detained Eta suspects make false claims for propaganda purposes.

But it is also the case that Amnesty International and other reputable human rights bodies have repeatedly criticised Spain for using this fact as an excuse for failing to establish UN-recommended procedures for the independent investigation of police abuses. The Spanish media rarely report these criticisms.

Spain had a dismal record on torture and state-sponsored terrorism under the Franco dictatorship, a regime described memorably by the senior PP MEP as “perfectly normal”. Worse, it is well documented that these abuses continued well into the democratic period, with government backing, right up to the 1980s PSOE administration of Felipe Gonzalez.

So no claim of abuse should be dismissed out of hand.

Meanwhile, the Spanish media’s coverage of the Basque Country remains a major part of the problem. There is a broad consensus among many Madrid opinion columnists that criticism of anti-terrorist policies constitutes terrorism in itself.

“Confessions” obtained by the police from suspects are regularly leaked and reported as fact, even in reputable newspapers. The word “alleged” is almost invisible in the Spanish press, so that detainees are criminalised and convicted by headline, though they may never be convicted in court.

All of the above has to be seen, of course, in the context of the utter contempt for human rights demonstrated by Eta over many years. The banning of newspapers and political parties only became a state strategy in the 1990s, when Eta had broadened its own list of “legitimate targets” to include local politicians, judges and journalists. When it comes to victims in this conflict, there is a depressing mutual myopia about the victims of the other side.

Under the rule of law, however, democracies are supposed to behave much better than their enemies.

It is arguable that the leading PP ideologues, and even many influential figures in the PSOE, fear peace in the Basque Country. Without Eta, they would have to engage with democratic demands for self-determination, and would not be able to demonise those who are making them as terrorists.

If that is the case, Batasuna’s new strategy could prove a tougher test for Spanish democracy than Eta’s cruel and disastrous campaigns.

Paddy Woodworth is author of Dirty War, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL and Spanish Democracy(Yale 2003) and The Basque Country(Oxford 2008)