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The Crisis in the Basque Country

John Sullivan

WHEN ETA KILLED a hostage, Miguel Angel Branco, as part of its campaign to force the government to move ETA prisoners to jails in the Basque country, its conflict with the Spanish state entered a new phase. Horror at the killing brought hundreds of thousands of people out on demonstrations and some of the offices of ETA’s political wing, Herri Batasuna, were attacked. The government played skilfully on the general outrage and hardened its position by refusing to make any concession on the prisoners. In August it persuaded the Dominican Republic to hand over three leading ETA members, who had been living there since 1989 at the request of the then Socialist government, following the breakdown of negotiations on a ceasefire. Although the formal negotiations failed, the presence of leading members of ETA in exile indicated that they might one day be resumed. The present conservative Spanish government rules that out. Crushing ETA is seen as a matter for the police.

The arrest of the exiles, together with legal measures against Herri Batasuna, presents ETA with great problems. It has always declared its willingness to negotiate with the Spanish government or, even better, the army. Being accepted as a valid negotiator is important even if the talks lead nowhere. As an elitist armed organisation it sees no need to consult the general population, or even its own supporters.

On the face of it, it would seem that the Basque conflict is insoluble. ETA demands a completely independent Euskadi, which would include the three provinces within the autonomous Basque community plus Navarre and the French Basque country, where there is little support for Basque nationalism. It is difficult to see the Spanish army, which was reluctant to accept the autonomy the Basque country and Catalonia now enjoy, accepting such demands.

In practice, ETA now gives much less priority to independence and national unification. It is unlikely ever to renounce those basic objectives, but for the moment they are relegated in favour of more immediate demands. It would be prepared to call a cease-fire if an amnesty which freed its hundreds of prisoners was granted. It is significant that Miguel Angel Blanco was killed as part of a campaign, not to free the prisoners, but merely to let them serve their sentences in local jails. In theory it would be easy to work out a compromise where the prisoners could be released in return for a cease-fire and could continue to agitate for full Basque independence. After all, the conservative Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) formally maintains that position, although it has long since ceased to mean anything.

However, a ceasefire will not be negotiated, for the very good reason that the government does not want one. At present the Partido Popular governs with the support of the conservative Catalan and Basque nationalists. Outrage at ETA’s recent actions might be enough to give it an overall majority, which would allow its dictatorial appetites full reign.

The Socialist Party (PSOE), which narrowly lost the 1996 elections, is unable to present an alternative to the government’s policies. When the PSOE was first elected in 1982 it backed a murder squad, GAL, which killed ETA sympathisers. Now that the Partido Popular is in power it holds the dossiers on its predecessor’s activities. Militant opposition by the PSOE might lead to some of its leaders being brought to trial. Felipe González, the former Prime Minister, remains a leading figure in the PSOE and, understandably, wants to stay out of jail.

The outlook for ETA and Herri Batasuna is now bleak as the French government actively pursues ETA, depriving it of the base it once had in the French Basque country. Herri Batasuna gets about 12 per cent of the vote, which might decline in reaction to the viciousness of Blanco’s killing. Much of that support is a product of concern for the nearly 500 ETA prisoners in Spain as well as those in French jails. Any Spanish government willing to conciliate could easily open up differences within radical nationalism. The abandonment of armed struggle would shatter Herri Batasuna’s unity as support for ETA, not competing political programmes, is the main division between it and the PNV.

ETA’s staggering political incompetence is demonstrated by its belief that a right wing government could be influenced by the threat to kill a municipal councillor. Herri Batasuna does not seek allies, as it divides society rigidly into supporters and opponents, neither of whom needs to be consulted. For their part, the workers’ parties are sleepwalking to disaster, apparently unaware that attacks on the rights of Herri Batasuna will be followed by moves against themselves. For Franco’s heirs, the workers’ movement which almost defeated them in 1936 is more to be feared than ETA.

The conflict in Euskadi is often compared to that of Ireland, but is not nearly as intractable. There is no religious divide in the Basque country, and although Basque nationalism was originally directed against "Spanish" immigrants who were seen as atheistic and racially inferior, that is no longer so. Both ETA, and the more moderate nationalists, have many members who are not ethnically Basque. There are grounds for optimism in the popular desire for an end to violence and the wish of Herri Batasuna members to see their relatives freed from prison.

Unfortunately, in the absence of an organised Marxist presence, workers like other social strata are divided by adherence to either Basque or Spanish nationalism, with the PSOE and the Communist Party tending to support the government and those from a further-left tradition giving critical support to Herri Batasuna. The Communist Party is beginning to take its distance from the conservative government, but is still very proud of its role in the transition from the Franco dictatorship in brokering the deal which guaranteed ruling class power in return for its own legalisation. The Zutik! group, which includes individuals who support the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec), issued excellent statements on Blanco’s murder and seems to be moving away from its unrequited love affair with Herri Batasuna.