ETA says it will kill no more but the Basque conflict isn’t over
In this essay, the author analyses the last conflict in Western Europe as the Basque clandestine group ETA declared on October 20 a permanent cessation of all armed action.
By David J. Franco, 5 Nov, 2011
On October 20th the Basque group ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna – Basque Country and Freedom) declared the complete cessation of all armed action. This essay analyses the process leading up to such declaration, the questionable participation of international groups and stakeholders in the so called peace process, and the road ahead. The first section provides an overview of the historical background of the conflict. The second section continues with an account of the latest developments since ETA unilaterally broke negotiations in 2007. The closing section is a critical analysis of the conflict as it stands today.
The fifties saw the emergence of a new armed group in Europe. In Spain, under the military dictatorship of General Franco no languages other than Spanish were allowed, no more than three people could gather in public spaces, and anybody who opined different than the powers that be faced deer consequences including execution. Political parties were banned and in historical regions such as the Basque Country the traditional and conservative Basque Nationalist Party (Partido Nacionalista Vasco (PNV)) was left with no political representation. Prison or exile was to be the fate of non-Spanish nationalists.
Against that background, a group of Basques formed a new coalition. Soon after, they held their first series of clandestine meetings and in 1959 ETA was born. Instead of Sabino Arana’s traditional nationalism based on race, ETA chose Krutwig’s nationalism based on language. Against conservatism and Catholicism, it chose Socialism. Against political debate, it chose to imitate the movements of liberation in the Third World. Against political paralysis and the gradualist approach of traditional nationalists initiated towards the end of the XIXth century, ETA chose armed action. Independence was the goal and the means justified the end. Euskadi (also known as the Basque Country and Euskal Herria), which spans across seven territories in Spain (the three provinces of the Spanish Basque Country –Bizkaia, Guipuzkoa, and Álava– plus Navarra) and France (the three provinces of Lapurdi, Nafarroa Beherea, and Zuberoa), ought to be liberated from the two imperial invaders. ETA’s first declared victim dates back to 1968. In 1975 they killed Franco’s successor to power, Carrero Blanco, and the Basque National Liberation Movement, a coalition of political forces and civil society in the far-left also known as the left abertzale (the radical Basque left), was formed. Herri Batasuna, composed of radical abertzales, became ETA’s political wing.
Both parties have travelled a long way since those days. Spain turned into a Parliamentary Monarchy following the adoption of the 1978 Constitution. Spaniards chose to constitute themselves as a semi-federal state in which regions would be given a fair degree of autonomy and self-governance under the unity of the Spanish Monarchy and the partial rule of the Central Government. In the Basque Country only, abstention in the vote for a new Constitution rose to 45% (data varies according to the source). Catalonia and the Basque Country were the first two historical regions to constitute themselves in autonomous communities with significant legislative and executive powers –the judicial power remains to this day part of the unity of Spain (or, in the words of Basque radicals, part of Spain’s oppressive apparatus). Languages other than Spanish were again part of people’s public daily lives and debate and political parties were again allowed.
On the other hand, ETA and its radical nationalist allies saw no real change on the ground. Independence and self-determination, not autonomy, was their condition for peace. Despite a long record of splits and internal divisions, ETA’s hardliners took control of the agenda and intensified their violence against targets in the military –the same military that held the country together under Franco and which was now under civilian command. In the years from 1978 to 1981, some 230 people, mostly military servicemen, were killed almost costing the country the return to the old regime as some units in the military and the semi-military police Guardia Civil attempted a frustrated coup.
In the following years Spain joined NATO, then the EEC, and some positive steps were taken towards resolving the conflict –ETA had by then suffered a number of splits as a group of their members view armed action no longer necessary in the face of democratic change. A general amnesty was granted to those who abandoned violence yet in reality ETA’s military branch prevailed. In the backstage, a shadow war was fought as Spain practiced State terrorism and several para-military groups in the far-right carried out clandestine counter operations against ETA and their allies. Those were the years of the “dirty war”. In 1987 the central government approved a new penitentiary policy aimed exclusively at prisoners of ETA. The policy, which lasts to this day and has been the subject of severe criticism from human rights organisations, establishes that condemned etarras (members of ETA) be dispersed throughout prisons spread in the Spanish territory. In 1989 Spanish officials initiated peace talks with ETA in Algiers but despite a 60-day ceasefire negotiations failed and violence resumed.
The nineties saw a change in ETA’s strategy following the detention of their leaders in the South of France as a result of Franco-Spanish police co-operation. Under a new leadership, the clandestine group turned to a new strategy based on a socialization of terror similar to that of the IRA in Northern Ireland. Targets no longer were limited to the military or the police but were officially extended to all the population including innocent civilians. Street protests were massive with people from all conditions and political affiliations demanding the end of violence. In 1996 Jose María Aznar of the right-wing conservative Partido Popular (PP) won Spain’s general elections putting an end to fourteen years of Socialist rule. His approach to ETA and its radical allies was to be tougher –Aznar had previously escaped a bombing attempt in 1995. The Basque Country lived in terror and large numbers of youth turned violent practicing street violence (kale borroka). All social strata were filled with fear.
Between 1996 and 1998 police and judicial pressure mounted on ETA’s entourage and Herri Batasuna suffered many arrests leading the party to change its constitution and name to Euskal Herritarrok (EH). Arnaldo Otegi, one of the active members of ETA amnestied in the early eighties, became the party’s leader. In 1998 EH was the third political party to win more votes in the Basque Elections and that same year the principal political forces in the Basque Country, including the traditional nationalists (PNV) and EH, reached a polemic pact (known as the Pacto de Estella or the Pacto de Lizarra) aimed at putting pressure on the Spanish Government to initiate a dialogue free of pre-conditions of any sort. In the meantime, the peace process in Northern Ireland seemed to advance in the right direction with the adoption of the Good Friday Agreement. This led the PP to initiate peace talks with ETA in 1999 but again ETA’s demands for independence were deemed too high and dialogue failed.
In the following years the two largest central political parties, the PP and the Socialists, decided to unite against ETA and its political wing. In 2002, they passed the Political Parties Act (Ley de Partidos) aimed at banning political parties and coalitions with links to terrorism. Batasuna, known previously as Herri Batasuna and EH, was banned with the backing of Spain’s Supreme Court and Constitutional Tribunal. So were several newspapers closely related to ETA. In 2003 ETA, its associated political parties, sindicates, juvenile associations, newspapers, and individual activists and members were added to the European Union list of terrorist organisations and individuals. In 2004 an Al Qaeda cell exploded several bombs in a train nearing Madrid’s train station, Atocha, killing approximately two hundred civilians. The then ruling party PP first pointed the finger to ETA to avoid being blamed for the killings only days before general elections –the killings were in fact motivated by Spain’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. ETA had nothing to do with those killings and this was very well exploited by the Socialists who, under the new leadership of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, won the March 2004 elections with the promise to initiate talks with ETA. That same year Arnaldo Otegi, whose party had been banned but whose individual rights had not been affected by the prohibition, made the so called Declaration of Anoeta inviting all political forces to initiate a new democratic process free of violence of any nature. In July 2005 the IRA announced the end of the armed struggle in Northern Ireland.
Against this positive scenario and following the implementation of some confidence building measures, negotiations between Zapatero’s Government and ETA then took place and on 22March 2006 ETA announced a permanent ceasefire aimed at advancing a democratic process in Euskal Herria. But just as the peace process seemed to be moving in the right direction, on 30 December 2006 ETA detonated a car bomb in the Madrid-Barajas airport adding two civilians to their long list of victims. One day earlier Zapatero had addressed the nation and promised a future free of violence and terror.
Two major developments took place in 2007. First, ETA’s unilateral action and refusal of Zapatero’s ultimatum was a blow to the President’s bet for dialogue, and to his credibility as the right interlocutor. This led the central government to shut the door to future negotiations. The conflict entered an impasse and again Spain opted to address the conflict merely from a judicial and military perspective: the conflict was again to be denied its political dimension until ETA was defeated. Between 2008 and 2010 security forces dismantled ETA’s organization and violent entourage on several occasions. Arnaldo Otegi had several pending trials for his alleged links to ETA.
Further, the Basque political scenario changed radically. With the support of the votes obtained by the Basque PP, the Basque Socialist Party took power ousting the historic conservative Nationalists (PNV) for the first time since the Basque Country became an autonomous community. With some of its members having been directly involved in the 2006 negotiations with ETA, the new regional government adopted a ‘tolerance zero’ attitude towards ETA and its violent supporters. This then led to pressure on ETA’s political wing and to the demand that it splits with ETA as the only way to regain political life. Politics and the ballot box, not violence, were their only chance to advance their cause of independence; ETA ought to abandon violence as a pre-condition for the radicals to be re-allowed in the political life of the country.
There were reasons to believe that the left abertzale was prepared to take steps in that direction but several factors played against this: first, having played the democratic card previously, a new declaration in this direction risked being seen as just another trick in a long history of deception and lies. Second, ETA could turn even more violent if it felt abandoned by its historical supporters who, this time, risked not being exempted from further armed operations. Third, many of the abertzale leaders were in prison or in exile and there were fears that they may demand a general amnesty before taking any such steps.
But all the odds were against them and in practice they had very little choice. Hence, historical supporters such as Arnaldo Otegi, who in 2009 was again arrested and accused of belonging to ETA’s political apparatus, reiterated their desire to launch a new democratic process free of any expression of violence. This was no minor thing: their proposal implied readiness to take steps towards ultimately breaking ties with ETA. Simultaneously, against the will of Spain’s principal political forces (who have always avoided external interference) the conflict reached international dimension as members of the left abertzale asked Brian Currin, a South African lawyer and expert in conflict resolution, to step in as facilitator. In 2010 Currin asked ETA to declare a permanent and verifiable ceasefire –Currin consecutive calls for the parties to take steps towards resolving the conflict have generally been welcomed by the international community. In September 2010 ETA declared it had been operating a de facto ceasefire since January of the same year but demanded that further steps be taken towards reaching a political solution to the conflict. ETA also confirmed its willingness to allow for an international committee to verify the truce as proposed by Currin with the backing of the abertzales and part of the international community.
The next twelve months saw several developments. In May 2011 Bildu, a new political coalition of abertzales and leaders with no official links to ETA or its consecutive banned political parties (a previous coalition, Sortu, had also been banned and Bildu, despite being taken to court, was finally allowed to take part in the elections), obtained more than 25% of the total votes in the local elections –they even won the top sit in San Sebastian, a historic socialist feud. Meanwhile, security forces and the judicial apparatus continued to close in on ETA and their violent entourage. In September 2011 Arnaldo Otegi and other abertzales were condemned to ten years of prison for seeking to reorganise Batasuna under the direct orders of ETA. Many criticised these measures as counter-productive to the climate of confidence that Otegi himself had helped construct. Others, including Spanish political forces, are of the view that after more than forty years of violence peace must be achieved at no political price. Be that as it may, truth is that by now violence has in fact dropped considerably: ETA is weaker than ever before and street violence has almost disappeared for the first time in more than a decade.
Against this background, a coalition of social platforms and human rights organisations including Currin’s work group called for an International Peace Conference to be held in San Sebastian with the aim of advancing towards a resolution of the Basque conflict. The Conference went finally ahead on October 17th 2011 and reached a five-point Final Declaration calling for ETA to declare a definitive cessation of all armed action and for Spain and France to hold talks about the consequences of the conflict and the political road ahead. The international delegation to the conference was composed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Tony Blair’s former advisor for Northern Ireland Jonathan Powell, Ireland’s former Prime Minister Berti Ahern, Sinn Fein’s President Gerry Adams, France’s former Ministry of Interior Pierre Joxe, and Norway’s former Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Tony Blair failed to attend the conference due to commitments in the Middle East and former US President Jimmy Carter and former US Senator Mitchells, who had a prominent role in the Northern Ireland peace process, both backed the resulting declaration.
Three days after the Conference and forty three years after its first appearance ETA announced the complete cessation of all armed action leading international personalities and domestic leaders to declare the triumph of democracy and reason. Total figures of the conflict vary according to the source but some associations point to some 1300 mortal victims (with approximately 850 attributable to ETA and 450 attributable to Spanish forces, official and unofficial) and hundreds more injured. At least 700 members of ETA are still in prisons spread throughout the Spanish territory, France, the UK, Northern Ireland and Mexico. Many others are in exile particularly in Latin American countries. Very few of the existing estimates take into consideration the conflict’s psychological effects amongst the population.
ETA’s cessation of all armed action has been hailed a triumph. Yet euphoria and adrenaline should not blind us from past, present, and future realities. ETA was never welcome by Spanish democrats but like it or not their existence to this day has been made possible thanks amongst other to the unconditional support of a segment of the Basque population. That it has decided to abandon violence is not so much based on a change of rationale but rather on a Darwinian need for survival. ETA has simply been defeated militarily but the hearts and minds of its leadership and members have not all been conquered. In a clear, symbolic indication of where they stand, the three members that appeared on television to announce the end of hostilities on October 20 did not reveal their identity. The conflict is very much still alive.
ETA’s historical allies have decided to abandon their rhetorical support for armed struggle and physical violence yet again their willingness to take such steps may be more the result of police and judicial persecution, as well as political ostracism, than a change in the way they see things. Independence continues to be their ultimate goal but they have finally come to realize, or so it seems, that ETA cannot win this war and that the ballot box, not guns, is the only accepted channel in twenty first century European politics. This is no minor thing and they should be praised for that. Yet statements affirming that peace has been achieved without concessions of any sort are inaccurate and dangerous. Although there appear to have been no concessions, ETA’s communiqué, with its usual Machiavellian language, hides numerous key messages and petitions.
Several personalities from the Spanish political and social strata have been quick to tame the level of euphoria seen in political and media circles. Fernando Savater, a philosopher, political activist and writer that for many years was a target of ETA, wrote an article on October 20th in which he ironically referred to the clandestine group as both pyromaniacs and fire-fighters. He stated that it is terribly ironic that those that initiated the terror are now the same ones that present themselves as the saviours of democracy and peace. In a similar line, Spain’s most renowned political analyst Antonio Elorza also criticized politicians and journalists for not being more critical with ETA’s latest declaration as in a sense the clandestine group is emerging as the ultimate interlocutor between Spain and France. He also strongly criticized the interference of Brian Currin in Spain’s internal affairs and even mocked the International Peace Conference of San Sebastian. Both Savater and Elorza have their points, but their analyses are evidently influenced by years of fear of being the next one in ETA’s long list of killings.
Brian Currin: mediator, negotiator, facilitator?
The role that Currin and his team of mediators have played in this affair is questionable to say the least. Despite appearing relatively late in the chronology of the conflict his role is worth examining in some degree of detail. Currin has on occasions presented himself as mediator or facilitator in the peace process yet Spanish officials have always been quick to reject such statements. For example, on 12 August 2010 Spain’s delegate to the Basque Country, Miguel Cabieces, stated that if anything Currin could only be considered a negotiator between ETA and the left abertzale because he never established direct contact with the Spanish Government and because the peace process ended the day ETA unilaterally broke negotiations with Zapatero’s Government. Moreover, Spain’s Ministry of Interior Antonio Camacho reiterated in September 2011 that neither Spain’s central government nor the Basque regional government have ever recognised Currin as mediator in the conflict. He also refused Currin’s proposal to allow an international committee to verify and oversee the de facto truce declared by ETA in September 2010. This is nothing new. Spain has always rejected external interference in this matter.
In an article entitled Peace or Victory (Paz o Victoria) of October 21st, Elorza analyses what in his judgement ETA’s declaration truly means for the peace process in the Basque Country. According to Elorza, ETA’s decision to abandon armed action represents not so much the triumph of democracy but the culmination of a synchronised strategy co-designed by Currin, the abertzales, and ETA, with the ultimate support of a blinded international community that ignores the particularities of the conflict. As per the contents of such strategy, Elorza points to the specifics of Currin’s letter published in Le Monde Diplomatique in June 2011. What can ETA’s phrase the “consequences of the conflict” possibly mean, asks Elorza?. Very simple: nothing shorter than the independence of the Basque Country. Associations of victims go even further to denounce that Currin’s wages derive directly from the suffering of the victims of the conflict.
Officially, Currin was never a facilitator or a mediator in the conflict yet in practice he has become one –both in his individual capacity and as representative of an international community that was/is supposedly actively watching. But has he become a de facto third party facilitator or is he/has he become embedded with one of the parties to the conflict? Currin never stepped in voluntarily despite the fact that he has often introduced himself and his team as impartial interlocutors seeking peace and justice in Euskadi. His first appearance in 2005 is likely to have taken place following the petition of the abertzales. In fact, Currin seems to have erected himself first as a de facto chief negotiator between ETA and the Government on behalf of the abertzales and, second, as the abertzale’s best strategist thinker with a clear mandate of bringing them back to politics. His often innocent calls for the adoption and implementation of confidence building measures addressed both to ETA, the left abertzale, and Spanish and French political forces are not reflective of the true, obscure nature of his role.
No doubt Elorza and all those denouncing Currin’s intromission in this affair have a point. But so does Currin and those who back him including the participants of the International Peace Conference of San Sebastian. They have reminded Spanish society and political forces of something of crucial importance in this matter: that ETA is just an element in a larger political conflict and that ETA’s military defeat cannot lead anybody to believe, lest conclude, that the conflict was never political in the first instance. The parties certainly need to deal with the consequences of the conflict including the belief by many in the Basque Country that Basques have the right to decide their own future away from Spain and France. A different matter, and one very serious, is whether the participants of the Conference would like to be subjected to a similar intromission in the internal affairs of their respective countries.
In a previous analysis of the Basque conflict (prepared in April 2010) I designed a step-by-step roadmap to peace that had as first objective the complete cessation of violence. No political action or steps should be taken before that objective was achieved. To that end, I stated that police and judicial action against ETA and the kale borroka should continue but that parallel dialogue should always prevail since cutting all channels of communication could result in ETA seeking broader participation by way of a sudden increase of violence. This strategy, I suggested, would ultimately lead to ETA’s defeat and to either a permanent ceasefire or a cessation of all armed action. Ultimately, I added, it could lead to the self-disintegration of the clandestine group.
Further, I also stressed that Spanish and Basque political forces should not make any pre-concessions to ETA. However, I noted that if the latter declared the end of hostilities, and only after this had been verified by a newly formed independent commission perhaps of an international nature, the central government should seek to implement confidence building measures such as for example a relocation of condemned etarras (members of ETA) to prisons located in the Basque Country. This, I noted, would contribute to an atmosphere of renewed trust and confidence. No general amnesties should be granted to members of ETA charged with blood crimes and the abertzales ought to express openly and publicly their desire to break up with ETA, both politically and financially.
So what are the next steps now that the abertzales have seemingly divorced ETA, now that the kale borroka has been reduced almost to zero, and now that ETA has declared complete cessation of armed action? Following ETA’s declaration of October 20 the leader of the conservative PP and Spain’s likely next Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, stated that most importantly no concessions have been made to ETA. In a similar line, Zapatero’s successor and former Ministry of Interior, Alfredo Pérez-Rubalcaba, expressed that ETA’s declaration represents a triumph and that he is convinced that ETA will not kill again. But as stated above, ETA’s declaration is Machiavellian and partially, only partially, convincing.
In an online article of 21st October Ana Martín Plaza analyses ETA’s communiqué and contrasts it with that made by the IRA in 2005. Like the IRA ETA has announced the end of the armed struggle but has not renounced to the ultimate goal of independence. It just considers that another ‘way’ is now available and implies that this has been made possible thanks to the armed struggle. Likewise, neither the IRA nor ETA apologized for their (often indiscriminate) killings although the IRA included a reference to the deer consequences of the conflict in the lives of peoples from both sides of the fence. But the two declarations bear some differences too. For example, unlike leaders of the IRA, ETA’s interlocutors appeared hidden behind their traditional gudari masks (masks worn by members of the Basque rural resistance during Franco’s dictatorship). They also remained silent around a possible disintegration and handing in of their military arsenals. In this regard, a recent poll carried out by Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia resulted in a clear majority of the participants answering ‘no’ to the question of whether they trusted ETA’s declaration of a cessation of armed action. The key question, then, is whether as Mariano Rajoy says peace has been achieved without conceding anything to ETA or whether on the contrary ETA needs something in exchange before dissolving and giving up arms.
The answer, I argue, could not be simpler. ETA is unlikely to be willing to take steps in that direction until Spanish and Basque political forces, and to a certain extent French forces too, publicly recognise the political dimension of the conflict and the willingness to address such dimension in a constructive and effective manner. Such is the meaning of the words “consequences of the conflict” in their communiqué, much in line with Currin’s letter of June 2011 and the second point in the final five-point declaration of the International Peace Conference. ETA, as noted by Elorza, does not have in mind just the implementation of confidence building measures such as the rapprochement of detainees; they are after a political solution to the conflict which, they believe, can only translate into independence. “Batasuna has been quick to explain what the price is for the ‘cessation’ of all armed action: to initiate ‘without further due’ the negotiations for the ‘recognition of Euskal Herria and the right to decide’. They are the same ones and they still want victory” (Elorza in El País, translation is mine).
Many in Spain portray ETA as a terrorist group with links to clandestine criminal activities such as arms trade and drug trafficking. They often argue that it has travelled a long way since the ETA of the sixties, seventies, and early eighties. I do agree with some of this analysis, the facts often speak for themselves, but I cannot agree with analyses that reject the political dimension of the conflict. ETA may not be nice to nobody’s eyes in a democratic age but the existence of the group finds its origin in a political conflict that goes a long way back in time and history. The last local elections showed that 25% of the Basque population wants independence. A similar, possibly higher percentage can be found in Catalonia, the other historical region. Once ETA will be gone further negotiations will be necessary and all political parties need to be included in a holistic democratic process that excludes no one and that establishes no pre-conditions. Spain celebrates elections on November 20th; let’s hope that the resulting new government handles this situation effectively and justly for all the parties. And although I believe that victims and relatives of victims of ETA’s terror must have a say in all this process I do nonetheless believe that they cannot hold the whole process hostage. That applies to the PP who often coalesces with associations of victims in order to refuse taking any further steps to address the political dimension of the conflict.
The seeds of violence must be grounded but for that to happen politics need to replace a culture of violence that has lasted too long and therefore penetrated the minds of many people. If Spain fails to address the political dimension of the conflict there could be a return to violence, either through a return to arms by ETA or through a split of the organisation.
Transforming the conflict
Theoretical approaches to conflict tend to differentiate between conflict prevention, conflict management, conflict resolution, post-conflict stabilization, and conflict transformation. This often gives the wrong impression that conflicts are like structured novels which include a clear beginning, a development, and an end. There is some truth in that, but often these processes overlap as is particularly the case with the phases of conflict resolution and conflict transformation.
The Basque conflict, although not as violent as other existing conflicts, has had a tremendous impact on Spanish population in general and Basque population in particular especially since ETA sought to involve all social strata and institutions in the early nineties. Politics in the Basque Country, to make it clear, has for decades not been business as usual and this has had very negative effects on the core of the population. This is well illustrated in a study published under the title “The Night of the Victims” which finds its inspiration in a similar study undertaken in Northern Ireland and published under the title “The Cost of the Troubles”. The study gathers statements of victims and witnesses of violence and concludes that political violence generates continued suffering and health problems that last for decades. It adds that collective violence bears not only physical effects but also consequences of a psychological, economic, professional, and social nature. Applying this to the Basque conflict, public institutions ought to deal with the long lasting effects of direct and indirect, visible and non visible violence.
As stated above, usually work towards transforming a conflict initiates after peace has been achieved. However, in practice steps can be taken in that direction even before the conflict is definitely solved. In fact, implementing a culture of peace may indeed become to be seen and felt by the population as confidence building measures preparing the terrain for a brighter future. Some sectors of the Basque civil society including religious congregations have called this a process of pre-reconciliation and have started to form groups of work with the aim of “disarming collective memories of violence”. The Basque conflict has had a significant toll in the lives of Basques and in the rest of the Spanish population. That is why public institutions, regional and central, but also civil society including in particular Basque women, have the responsibility and the historic opportunity to rebuild trust and generate public goods for the entire population.