Libmonster ID: CN-1137
Author(s) of the publication: Sergey KHENKIN

Professor, Moscow State Institute of International
Relations (University)
Ph. D. (History)

Multiethnic states in the modern world demonstrate a conflict of two equally recognized principles of international law - on one hand, the right of every nation to self-determination, and on the other hand, the principle of territorial integrity of the state. This collision may develop in different ways and lead to diametrically opposed solutions. In this respect, the experience of multiethnic Spain is of definite interest. In its transition from authoritarian rule to democracy (which many experts consider a model one), Spain has been able to avoid repetition of atrocities of the Civil War in the 1930s. Nevertheless, there has been bloodshed. The main source of violence has been terrorist activities of the Basque separatist organization ETA. For almost 40 years already, it has been keeping up tensions in the country. The conflict between ETA and the

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Spanish state is one of the most intractable problems in the world.

Roots of the "Basque problem"

ETA's ethnic separatism is deeply rooted in the ethnic and cultural specifics of the Basque provinces. There is still controversy as to the origin of the Basque people. Some researchers consider them descendants of the mixed Celtic-Iberian tribe, while others present evidence of kinship between the Basques and Georgians in the Caucasus. The specific character, customs, traditions of the Basques make them distinct from other peoples inhabiting Spain. They have their own unwritten literature, musical folklore, holidays and games, their own cuisine. Since the times of the Roman rule (the late 3d century B. C. - early 5th century A. D.), when the tribes inhabiting Spain were subjected to a profound Romanicization, the Basques who lived in isolation in their mountain regions, remote from major trade routes, retained their native tongue, euskera , which is not like any other language. The severe nature of the mountains and the relatively small numbers of the people (the Basque Country has a population of 2.1 million, accounting for just 5% of that of Spain) resulted in a strong sense of distinctiveness and great self-esteem.

Since the 13th century, the Basques had a specific political administrative regime, affording them certain independence. Tax collection and customs policy have been the domain of the local authorities. The Basques served in the army only within their native province. Their rights and obligations were fixed in the so-called "foral rights" (derived from the concept of fueros - a complex of benefits, privileges and responsibilities that largely determined relationships between the central authorities and the Basque

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Country). Spanish kings, for all their colossal authority, pledged allegiance to fueros. This symbolic gesture had a great significance, for it served as a confirmation of supremacy of fueros over royal power. For centuries, the Basques regarded fueros as an embodiment of their ancient traditions and customs, a symbol of ethnic distinctiveness. At the same time, the Basques have never had a statehood of their own. Fueros did not mean renouncement of general Spanish legislative requirements, which were enforced in many spheres of life along with foral rights.

The cancellation of fueros in 1876 marked an important point in relations between the Basques and central authorities, stimulating development of local nationalism. Its ideologist was Sabino Arana (1865 - 1903), who declared that Spain had made a colony of the Basque Country, and called for complete independence of Basque lands through setting up a confederation of four Spanish provinces (Vizcaya, Alava, Guipuzcoa, and Navarre) and three French regions populated by Basques (Soule, Labourd and Lower Navarre).

Tensions between the Basques and central Spanish authorities reached the peak under Franco's dictatorship, when the autonomy of the Basque Country, granted by the Spanish republican government (1936), was abolished. The Basque language was banned. Basques were not allowed to give Basque names to their children, sing Basque songs, hang out "Ikurrina" - the national Basque flag. All paperwork and education were only done in Spanish. Spanish was the only language in which books and newspapers were published, the only language on the radio and TV. Treatment of the Basque provinces Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa that had fought on the republican side was based on a decree

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that had no legal precedent, declaring them "traitor provinces". The two Spanish provinces (as opposed to others that had also taken the Republican side, where "traitors" were punished yet the provinces themselves were not declared traitors) were regarded as enemy territories. On April 26, 1937, the town of Guernica was bombed out of existence - a holy place for the Basques, which had been for centuries regarded as a symbol of their national liberties. Under the dictatorship, a state of emergency was repeatedly imposed in Vizcaya and Guipuzcoa, with repressive measures being taken not only against real or potential opponents of the dictatorship, but anyone at all.

Emergence of ETA (1959) came as reaction of radical Basque youth to brutal suppression of Basque national feelings. Seeing no other ways of political self-expression, young Basques took up arms.

ETA is an abbreviation of the slogan "Euskadi Ta Askatasuna" - "Basque Country and Freedom". Originally, ETA identified itself as a "patriotic and democratic organization". Later on, influenced by the national liberation struggle in Algeria, Vietnam, Cuba, ETA activists took up Marxist ideas and anti-imperialist slogans. In 1967, ETA called itself as a "socialist Basque movement for national liberation", setting a goal to liberate the Basque people from "Spanish yoke" and establish an independent Socialist state of Spanish and French provinces populated by Basques.

ETA shed its first blood on June 7, 1968 when a 25 year-old policeman was shot dead, while on a customary highway patrol. Several hours later, a leader of the organization was mortally wounded in a shootout. This started the bloody fighting of Basque separatists against the Spanish state, which was doomed to last many years.

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ETA's terrorism contrasted the ideology of most anti-Franco opposition organizations that used primarily peaceful, nonviolent forms of fighting the dictatorship. Nevertheless, the Franco regime's brutal persecution of ETA activists changed the attitude of even those groups of people who had initially opposed the organization. Many Spanish people started regarding ETA militants as noble "Robin Hoods", prepared to sacrifice their lives for the freedom of their Motherland.

ETA and Spanish democracy

In the first years of democracy and the laborious transition from Franco's centralism to the "state of autonomies", ETA continued strengthening its positions. The Spanish state, regardless of the political regime, remained its chief enemy. For Basque extremists, all Spaniards are "occupants".

Since 1968, ETA has been responsible for over 800 deaths, over 2,000 wounded people and dozens of kidnappings. To these, one should also add those who were forced to flee the Basque Country - families of businessmen and small tradespeople who are required to pay "revolutionary taxes", and relatives of people receiving threats from terrorists - politicians, journalists, judges, professors.

During the 1990's, ETA also started "stirring up" the country with "low-intensity terror" (using police terminology) that caused no deaths yet kept the Basque Country and neighboring regions under continuous strain. In this, extremists drew support from their youth organization, Harrai, which unleashed real intifada-type terror in the streets of Basque towns. Harrai activists beat policemen up with steel rods, hurled Molotov cocktails, set fire to cars and municipal buses, branches of public organizations and

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banks, smashed shop and restaurant windows. Notably, many of these activists came from well-off families and had a higher education. Young marginals willingly joined them.

ETA's history of fighting against the Spanish state may be roughly subdivided into three stages:

Stage 1 (1968 - 1978), when the organization set the course for launching a revolutionary movement against Franco's regime, using the scheme "terrorist act - repression - terrorist act". Terrorist acts were believed to provoke state repressions, which would lead to increased public support for the organization, thus enabling it to stage new terrorist acts, which, in their turn, would lead to a new wave of reprisals. The outcome would be revolution.

Stage 2 (1978 - 1998) was described by terrorists themselves as "war of attrition". Assassinations were carried out, aiming to exert pressure on the authorities, so that they would have nothing else to do but comply with terrorists' demands. The organization survived thanks to its ability to kill.

The third stage started in 1998, when the terrorists realized they had lost the "war of attrition" against the state. Instead of disbanding the organization, however, they engaged in cooperation with moderate nationalists in their autonomous region, the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP).

Though ETA has repeatedly changed its strategy of fighting against the central government, Spanish political experts note it has always demonstrated a specific mode of behavior. ETA militants, as a rule, issue a warning of the planned terrorist act some time before it takes place. They never bomb kindergartens or student colleges, they never let nationalists or clergymen, their relatives or friends fall victim to their attacks. It should be said,

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however, that the initially defined sphere of what is considered "admissible" has been constantly expanded. In the 1970s - the first half of the 1980s, terrorist attacks were directed primarily against the military and police officers, who symbolized "occupation" of the Basque Country by the Spanish. In the second half of the 1980s, the terrorists started detonating car bombs, killing ordinary people, kids included. In the 1990s, ETA started practicing assassinations of political leaders - police even managed to prevent an assassination of the king of Spain. At the same time, ETA tried to avoid mass murders involving numerous victims among civilians. The turning point was the bomb explosion in a Barcelona department store in 1987, in which 21 people were killed. The terrorist act evoked mass protests, even among members of the organization itself. Renouncing mass murders, ETA tried not to antagonize its supporters and sympathizers, as well as maintain its criteria of what is "admissible" in terrorist fighting. Characteristically, following the atrocious terrorist acts of March 11, 2004 in Madrid (with the biggest numbers of victims in the history of Spain), people who are well acquainted with the style of ETA did not believe it was responsible for the explosions.

ETA was not able to win a victory over the Spanish state. Its goal was different - weakening the state, maintaining an atmosphere of fear and civil war in the Basque Country and entire Spain. The organization's leaders believed that only irreconcilable confrontation with the authorities was able to keep up the revolutionary spirit in masses of people, stir up the "bourgeois morass" and, in the long run, lead to victory. The terrorists tried instigating animosity towards the Basques among inhabitants of other regions of the country, stimulating severance of ties between

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their autonomous region and the rest of Spain, convincing the Basque people of the need for independent development.

Extremists, citing international norms, demand recognition of the right to self-determination for the Basque Country. In 1978, when the current Spanish Constitution was adopted, there was not a single party that would insist on this right, fearing that the possibility of dissolution of the "one and indivisible Spain" might provoke the army, with its numerous conservative-minded officers, to a coup d'etat. Today, the right to self-determination theoretically might be recognized through amendments to the Constitution (the army has greatly changed in the past years, limiting itself to performance of professional functions and not interfering in politics). This decision might deprive ETA of its chief argument, yet it cannot guarantee cessation of terror. In any case, Madrid refuses to even consider the matter of recognizing the right to self-determination for the Basques. The authorities declare that the Constitution of Spain is indefeasible.

ETA in the Basque Country

ETA is not the only force representing Basque nationalists. The autonomous region has, besides branches of national Spanish parties, several nationalist Basque parties, differing among themselves in the nature of their political demands. Since the late 1970s, the leading political force among them is the oldest party of the autonomous region, the Basque Nationalist Party (BNP), founded in 1894 - 1895. BNP combines Basque Country independence rhetoric with moderate political activities and willingness to cooperate with the central authorities. Unlike ETA, BNP does not demand independence for the autonomous region -

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instead, it insists that its sovereignty is based on historical rights of the Basque people who have voluntarily became part of Spain. In the party's interpretation, the Basque Country's sovereignty calls for granting it self-government, which is necessary for establishing Basque nationhood. Madrid, however, refuses to accept this, upholding the principle of indivisibility of the sovereignty of the Spanish state.

ETA's political interests are represented by the rather influential Batasuna party (prior to 2001, called Herri Batasuna), which was formed in 1978 through a merger of a group of small parties, closely connected with ETA. Batasuna's program appears to be rather eclectic, combining anti-capitalist phraseology with pretensions to representation of all groups of Basque public. In August 2002, the party was banned.

Since the first years of Spain's return to democracy, nationalist Basque parties were ahead of national Spanish parties in their aggregate influence on Basque society. For instance, in the first local elections of 1980, the former obtained 63% of votes. Most Basques, largely influenced by nationalist parties, were sceptical of the democratic Constitution of 1978, which, among other things, granted autonomy to national regions in Spain. The 1978 referendum on ratification of the Constitution demonstrated a very large share of absentees (54.5%), with another 10.5% voting against ratification. Only 31.3% of those who participated in the referendum supported the Constitution.

At the same time, the population and most parties in the Basque Country showed a different attitude to the Statute of Autonomy (also called the Guernica Statute, from the place where it was adopted), which specified provisions of the Constitution of 1978

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regarding delimitation of the competence of the autonomous region. Under the Guernica Statute (signed in 1979), the Basque autonomy was established, which included Alava, Guipuzcoa, Vizcaya, and Navarre. The Basques were recognized as a nationality. On the whole, the Basque Country got the rights and freedoms it had never had in all its history. It now has its own parliament, police, a radio station, two TV channels, a bilingual education system, and a taxation system of its own. Of all European peoples lacking independent statehood, the Basques have the widest autonomy. It is also important that the Basque Country is one of the most economically developed regions of Spain, possessing high living standards.

Yet extremist radical nationalists from ETA fail to see it, continuing their fight for separation of the Basque Country from Spain and establishment of an independent state. Today, ideological activities of ETA and forces grouped around it are focused on creating a mythological history of the Basque Country, exaggerating its specifics and overstating the problems that exist between the central government and the autonomous region. They are basically attempting to artificially hypercharge the situation in order to preserve and expand ETA's public base.

The mythological aura shrouding the past and present of the Basque people is what to a large extent explains ETA's longevity. It has very many supporters and sympathizers. ETA has numerous family, friendly links tying it with Basque public. Its legal representative - Batasuna party, for almost a quarter of a century before it was banned, had obtained 150,000 to 250,000 votes at local elections.

At the same time, from an ideological and political perspective,

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the Basque society appears to be deeply split. The large political factions represented here include,

- radical nationalists trying to achieve independence of the region through armed struggle;

- nationalists calling for a peaceful, nonviolent separation of Basque-populated provinces from Spain;

- moderate nationalists supporting a wide autonomy for the Basque Country within Spain;

- non-nationalist forces oriented to cooperation with Spanish national organizations and working within the framework of Spanish legislation.

The Basque Country may be described as a society of polarized pluralism characterized by existence of anti-systemic opposition, ideological polarization, fragmentation of the electorate, conflicts between parties and organizations.

It is therefore natural that people show an ambivalent attitude to ETA's concept of independence and its calls for recognition of the right of nations to self-determination. The majority of the population do not wish to sever ties with the rest of Spain. There is awareness in the autonomous region that the independence ETA is fighting for might mean serious economic problems for the Basque Country that has no natural resources of its own. 50% of its production is exported to other regions of Spain.

Nevertheless, over 70% of the population of the autonomous region call for a wider autonomy, even though the central authorities believe the region already has too much of it. Moderate Basque nationalists insist that the Constitution should have a provision specifying the right of autonomous regions to self-determination - even though they are not actually going to secede

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from Spain. Their logic was expressed by a Basque politician who said, "I do not want to divorce my wife with whom I have lived all my life. Yet I do not want the law to deny me my right to have a divorce".

ETA's support base is gradually decreasing. The differences between moderate nationalists and extremists are becoming increasingly tangible. Moderate nationalists are focusing on everyday problems of life in the autonomous region. As for the terrorists, their activities lead to delegitimization of public institutes, undermining stability. Pacifist sentiments have been growing since the late 1980s in the Basque Country, which is tired of endless assassinations. Terrorist acts periodically evoke strong outbursts of public protests. Many "peaceful" Basques, who have formerly feared retaliation from ETA, now fearlessly go to the streets, expressing their indignation over its actions.

Extremists, however, persist in their views and do not give in. Their blind, fanatical position, running counter to interests of Spain and the Basques themselves, indicates that ETA, whose members now regard terrorism their profession, has outlived its usefulness.

The attitude to ETA of moderate nationalists, just like that of forces in the Basque Country which are oriented to the interests of Spain as a whole, does not have the nature of open collision and confrontation, which does not rule out periodic excesses and crisis situations. The sense of belonging to the same Basque community more often than not keeps opponents in these situations from taking extreme actions against one another. The attitude to extremists represents a complex social and psychological mixture of different feelings, including fear, rejection and antagonism,

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sympathy and understanding, pragmatism. Thus moderate nationalists from Basque Nationalist Party, who hold key administrative positions in the autonomous region, find terrorism unacceptable. At the same time, they are playing the "ETA card" in an effort to get additional concessions from the central government. Cessation of ETA activities is not in the interests of BNP, because it would turn BNP into an "extreme" nationalist force in the region. The situation in the autonomous region was aggravated by a shift in the policies of the party's leaders. Since the late 1990s, BNP, which had never before acted outside of the law, openly raised the matter of the Basque Country's sovereignty and established more active contacts with ETA.

In September 2003, president of the Basque Government Juan Jose Ibarretxe presented a plan for turning the Basque Country into a "free state associated with Spain". While formally staying within Spain, this state, according to Ibarretxe's plan, should freely plan and manage its economic development, address issues related to labor legislation and social relations, possess its own judicial system, and have its own representation offices abroad. Ibarretxe believes that the neighboring province Navarre with a numerous Basque population might join the Basque Country, just like the Basque-populated departments in Southwestern France. The project envisages a 6-month period of negotiations between the local and central governments and, regardless of the consent of the latter, holding a referendum in the autonomous region to get a nation-wide approval of the new status. The main political forces of the country subjected the plan to sharp criticism, saying it contradicted the national Constitution and the draft European Constitution that was being drawn up at the time.

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With the emergence of the "Ibarretxe Plan", the positions of BNP and ETA militants became as close as ever, even though Ibarretxe himself insists that realization of his plan is going to put an end to terrorism, making extremist actions devoid of any sense.

Fighting terrorism

Spanish authorities used a wide armory in fighting ETA, from negotiations to a harsh and irreconcilable confrontation, from actions within a strict legal framework to measures that are far outside of the law. In the early 1980s, the so called antiterrorist liberation groups were set up, which used illegal and antidemocratic methods and were not controlled by law enforcement agencies. Their activities resulted in nearly 30 victims, murdered or tortured to death in prisons, though they had nothing to do with ETA or terrorism. It is only natural that the effect was contrary to what had been expected, leading to increased public support for ETA. The illegal methods used by the authorities became an issue in internal political struggle and a subject of incessant judicial investigations, leading to resignations of the ex-deputy chairman of the government and a number of ministers. Many high-ranking officials were detained and released on bail, with a written undertaking not to leave the place of residence.

Throughout the many years of ETA's armed struggle, it has several times declared truce - these periods were often used for secret negotiations between leaders of the organization and the authorities, which, however, usually came to a deadlock or were broken off by one of the sides. The latest truce was declared by ETA militants in September 1998. It lasted 14 months before being broken off by ETA.

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Spanish public differs in views regarding ways of settling the problem of terrorism. There is sharp controversy as to the legal limits of the use of force to ETA, and as to whether negotiations with terrorists are admissible. When in September 1998 ETA announced an "unlimited truce", most of the polled Spaniards could not rule out that the "truce" was but a "part of strategy" of the extremists, weakened by the active opposition of law enforcement agencies. Three quarters of the polled supported contacts and a dialogue between the authorities and ETA, with about 60% of Spaniards insisting that the government should satisfy at least part of ETA's counter demands. At the same time, every fifth respondent called for no concessions to terrorists.

The decision of the People's party government to ban Batasuna also evoked public controversy. Opponents regard this decision as encroachment upon pluralism, believing that negotiations with political representatives of the extremists might help settling the conflict (in this, they often refer to the negotiations between the British authorities and Shinn Fein, the political representative of the IRA terrorist organization).

Following the March 11, 2004 explosions in Madrid, the Spanish authorities have had to wage a war against terrorism on two fronts - with ETA and the much more merciless extremism of the Al-Qaeda type. In May 2004, Spain, after the example of the US, set up its own National anti-terror center, uniting police, civil guard and special forces.

Spanish security services, in their fight with ETA, actively cooperate with their colleagues in neighboring France, where terrorists quite often find refuge and where they have an extensive net of hiding places and arms caches. In recent years, the Spanish and

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French police carried out a series of joint anti-terrorist operations resulting in numerous arrests and seriously weakening ETA.

In 2003, there were only three victims of ETA militants, the lowest number of deaths in the past thirty years. In 2004 and in the first months of 2005, ETA reminded of itself only with small explosions that resulted in no human deaths. This is due to not only the weakening of the organization but also the psychological climate of nation-wide denunciation of terrorism in Spain in the wake of March 11, 2004. Some politicians even started saying that the time of ETA was running out. One should not, however, forget that ETA has already not once become dormant for a while, yet each time it took up arms once again. The more so that the ground for resuming terrorist activities in the autonomous region still remains.

The results of the April 2005 regional parliamentary elections in the Basque Country clearly demonstrate the alignment of forces. The elections basically had a nature of referendum on Basque attitude to the "Ibarretxe Plan". The nationalist coalition led by BNP won, even though it lost four seats since the 2001 elections (29 against 33, out of a total of 75 seats in the parliament). This gives BNP a relative majority, which, however, is not enough to implement the "Ibarretxe Plan". In other words, the elections confirmed BNP's mandate to ruling the autonomous region, yet simultaneously demonstrated that the "Ibarretxe Plan" does not get enough support to have it materialized.

Political representatives of ETA achieved success. Though the banned Batasuna did not take part in the elections, it called upon its supporters to cast votes for the hitherto little-known Communist Party of Basque Territories, which was thus able to win

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9 seats. BNP now faces a tough choice - it will either seek support from this party and, consequently, try realizing the "Ibarretxe Plan", thus risking aggravation of social polarization in the Basque Country and deterioration of relations with the central authorities. Or it may try and establish contacts with deputies from the Basque Socialist Party (a branch of the ruling Spanish Socialist Workers' Party), coming just behind BNP with its 18 seats in the local parliament. The latter will indicate renunciation of the "Ibarretxe Plan". Be it what may, ETA, which stands behind the Communist Party of Basque Territories, and Batasuna continue influencing the political process in the Basque Country.

The socialist government's position on the "Basque problem" aims at reforming the statute of the autonomous region through a dialogue between all the parliamentary parties and on the basis of respect for the Constitution of Spain. Spanish prime minister Jose Luiz Rodriguez Zapatero believes that the coming "round table" discussion of these parties should compel ETA to forever renounce the use of force and lead to signing of a political peace accord in the autonomous region. It is nevertheless clear that disentangling the "Basque knot" is not done quickly.

In evaluating ETA's prospects, one should also take into account the process of European integration, which works against national separatism. Liquidation of borders, establishment of an integrated market of commodities, capitals and services, expanded powers of supranational bodies may soon turn the terrorists' chief demand - the right of nations to self-determination - into anachronism.



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Sergey KHENKIN, "THE BASQUE COUNTRY AND FREEDOM", OR LONGEVITY IN THE WORLD OF TERRORISM // Beijing: China (ELIBRARY.ORG.CN). Updated: 05.11.2022. URL: (date of access: 16.07.2024).

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