Violence Hinders Constructive Debate in the Basque Region | Inside Europe | DW | 10.12.2008
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Inside Europe

Violence Hinders Constructive Debate in the Basque Region

During its 40-year campaign for an independent Basque nation, separatist group ETA has murdered over 800 people. A small minority in the Basques supports ETA, and a majority is in favor of greater autonomy from Spain.

Posters on a building in Hernani, Spain showing imprisoned members of ETA

There is support in Hernani for imprisoned members of ETA

The alleged military head of the armed, Basque separatist organization ETA was recently arrested in France. The Spanish authorities say the detention of Mikel Garikoitz Aspiazu, known as Txeroki, is a serious blow to ETA. But terrorism experts say this arrest won't put an end to Western Europe's last violent bid for independence.

ETA's struggle is in the Basque region, an area covering four provinces in northern Spain and three smaller ones in the south of France. Basque political groups who want complete independence control many local town councils, like Hernani, near the Basque city of San Sebastian.

The people in Hernani, like many in Spain's Basque region, see themselves as distinct from the rest of the country -- and they have good reason to. The Basque language, Euskara, is the oldest in Europe and not related to any other language in the world.

A man behind the Basque flag

The Basques are a very proud people

The region's history is different and has been subject to less outside influences -- for example, the Basques were never conquered by the ancient Romans or by the Arabs. This successful resistance to invaders has contributed to a rebellious spirit that lives on today and you notice it in places like Hernani.

Basque nationalism is a very complex issue. But some people in Hernani, like a local pharmacist, say it's a mistake to think that their region is dominated by the issue of independence.

"I'm totally against the view that the Basque region is obsessed with independence," the pharmacist says. "Perhaps our politicians have a tendency to try and make it like that. They've invested lots in campaigns to convince the rest of Europe about this desire for independence in the Basque region, but this isn't reflected in reality."

There are some Basque people in favor of complete independence, others who want a little bit more autonomy from Spain, for example, increased control over taxes. Others just want to be able to hold a referendum on independence.

Some see building a Basque nation as a work in progress that's not to be rushed and, finally, there are those who regard themselves as Basque, but are completely against separation from Spain.

Referendum could stop violence

A majority of people in the Basques do vote for political parties that clearly favor complete or greater autonomy from Spain. Those parties control most local councils, like in Hernani.

Andoni Amonarraiz

"What damage can a referendum do?" asks Amonarraiz

Andoni Amonarraiz is a councilor from the moderate nationalist PNV. He says the Basque struggle would be easier without ETA.

"The central problem in the Basque Region I think is that there is a group that is dedicated to killing and carrying out extortion using the excuse that they are fighting for independence, " Amonarraiz says. "They've taken our independence flag in that sense. I think it would be much easier to achieve greater autonomy and if it was appropriate to do so, full independence, if ETA disappeared."

Amonarraiz says holding a referendum on independence would help stop this violence. But surveys show that only between 30 and 40 percent of Basques are in favor of it. Many Spaniards think a referendum will cause more problems that it would solve.

Two of the other political groups represented on the council are against independence from Spain and a referendum on this issue. The conservative Popular Party and the Socialist party -- who are enemies in the national parliament but often allies in the Basque region, united by a common opposition to independence -- say it will divide the Basque people. But they agree that it's violent nationalism, not nationalism itself that's the big problem.

"I have no problem making friends with people of different ideologies, it's the violence of a small minority that is the problem here," says Maria Luz Anglada from the Popular Party.

ETA threat is comprehensive

Political violence from a small minority has a very direct effect on people's lives. Over the years, tens of thousands of Basques have left the region to escape it. The violence, or threat of it, can include letters from ETA demanding the so-called revolutionary tax to help pay for their armed campaign or verbal abuse in the street.

Hernani town council

Life can get very complicated for politicians outside the town council

Politicians from parties that don't support independence, like Anglada's conservatives, have 24-hour bodyguards to protect them from violent Basque nationalists.

Jose Perez Dominguez, a Socialist member of the Hernani council, says he has no problem carrying out his functions inside the council building. The problems start when he leaves the grounds.

"It's really very complicated," Dominguez says. "When I go home, I can't go anywhere without my bodyguards." For the past decade, Dominguez has been unable to even have a drink in town without his bodyguards.

"And I've been a son of this town all my life! I really do feel threatened here," he says. "It's one thing to put up with this, but you never get used to this. This is the simple reality."

Nationalism isn't a problem for the people

Experts on Basque separatism argue that this violence and its acceptance by the rest of the community create an environment where ETA can continue to exist. It directly affects the democratic system here because, Dominguez says, at election time in Hernani, a substantial number of people are too scared to vote.

But on the streets, the people don't seem very conscious of the threat of violence that ruins the daily lives of politicians who are against Basque independence, or potentially distorts their local elections.

A view of Hernani

Hernani is a struggling town

"I think the problem is that we're not recognized for what we are -- and that's Basque," one young man says.

"For me personally, nationalism is not a big issue, but I think we have to respect the opinion of those who do think it is," says a woman. They should have options to act, like a referendum, she adds.

"The big problem in Hernani and the Basque region is that lots of people from outside impose their opinions on something that they have no idea about," says another young man.

People in Hernani seem to feel that the rest of Spain doesn't understand them and that the Spanish government uses the legal system to unfairly attack their politicians. Support for parties like the radically nationalist ANV has perhaps less to do with a real desire for independence and more to do with identifying with a home grown, local party.

But there's also an unwillingness to acknowledge and condemn the aggression and violence of some sections of the political groups they're supporting.

The politicians and the people in the Basque region say that the violence and the attacks from ETA are nothing like they were a decade a go. But the violence is still there and until it abates it seems unlikely that there'll be any constructive debate about the issue of independence.

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