Basque Limbo


Although the violent conflict in Basque country is over, the peace is not there yet. This article reviews the recent history and reflects the current  situation in the Basque country.

The presence of police in Berlin’s streets these days was stronger than usual. Several German citizens were killed in Istanbul in January. So, taking a plane to Bilbao felt like heading to a safest and most quiet place in Europe, far from news concerning terrorism or refugees, the latter occupying a lot of public minds in Germany. Basque country now seems like a quiet paradise for surfers and occasional French tourists indulging into the Basque miniature culinary delights known as ‘pintxo’s. The landscape of rolling hills, generous views of the Cantabrian sea so as the pilgrims passing by on their route to Santiago de Compostela serve almost as a disguise, covering up the bloody past and the twisted present of these places. What an irony, I thought. The place that used to be known for the longest persevering armed conflict in Europe now becomes quieter than any other place in Europe. Reading news about Spain one would find out more about Catalans and their strife for independence, but not about the Basque country. As if it would be a strange conspiracy punishing the former ‘enfant terrible’ of Spain depriving it now of attention.tWhat used to be general Franco’s summer palace, almost four decades after his death served as a venue for a conference that would mark the end of the violent conflict in the Basque country that lasted 50 years. Short after carefully staged international conference held in San Sebastian in the palace of Aiete 2011 with the presence of the prominent international figures such as Kofi Annan, Gro Harlem Brundtland and Gerry Adams, ETA delivered BBC a video recording, in which figures dressed in a variation of a ku-klux-klan fashion sporting black Basque berets declared a definitive ceasefire. In the video you could hear a decisive female voice reading a text in Basque, stating ETA’s commitment to find a democratic solution to the conflict. “In its commitment to a democratic process to decide freely and democratically our future, through dialogue and negotiations, ETA is prepared today as yesterday to agree to the minimum democratic conditions necessary to put in motion a democratic process, if the Spanish government is willing.”

If there were ceasefires before, this time it was for real – a definitive one. So, the armed conflict is over. ETA is not more. But the peace is not there yet. So what then?

Basques are one of the most enigmatic nations of Europe. A lot of evidence suggest, that the ancestors of Basques must have been there before anybody else arrived. Euskera is a pre-indo-european language featuring most prominently ergative form (An article in Wikipedia explains it like this: for instance, instead of saying “she moved” and “I moved her”, speakers of an ergative language would say the equivalent of “she moved” and “by me moved she”.)

There have been various hypothesis linking it to the languages of the Caucasus, in particular with Armenian, however none of them could be proved. So, in this regard Euskera must be one of the oldest and most intriguing languages of Europe. However, instead of being celebrated and acknowledged as such, in the European context it is almost unknown and totally marginalized until today.

Although Basque history predates any other nation in Europe, in order to understand current events it is enough to reflect the their history of the past century. Picasso’s painting ‘Guernica’ can serve as an emotional starting point that depicts the suffering of the recent past. During the Spanish Civil War in 1937 Guernica, the former capital of the Basque country was bombed by Nazis in co-operation with Franco, causing a tremendous wound in the national psyche of Basques. Nazis were defeated. However, Franco stayed not least because of the help of American government in power until 1975, his phantom legacy extending until now.

During the years of the Franco regime, for saying  ‘agur’ (hello) in the street, you could end up in the prison. Children were punished harshly for using Euskera and would be made to talk in “christian” (‘hablame en cristiano’ meaning  ‘talk to me in christian’, would be a usual phrase to undermine any attempts to speak Basque and impose Spanish). Although the situation for the language got much better after Franco’s death in 1975 and after however Euskera has been facing further challenges. It has been mocked harshly in the Spanish press since long time. Juan Mari Torrealdai, a Basque intellectual collected excerpts from various statements of the Spanish journalists about the Basque language from the Spanish press and published them 1998 in a book “Libro Negro de Euskera” (The Black Book of Euskera). The book contains pejorative statements of Spanish journalists about the ‘primitive’ and ‘limited’ nature of Euskera. With my Lithuanian background I thought it was rather remarkable – I could not imagine any of these statements referring to Lithuanian language during the Soviet era. Despite the political oppression language was never a target of humiliation. But in Basque case it was and is in a very extreme way.

I thought it would be interesting to meet Juan Mari Torrealdai and find out what he might have collected after 1998. Did the style or attitude towards Basque language in the Spanish public sphere change since 1998? I found out that now 73 year old Juan Mari was imprisoned, tortured and currently is suffering from cancer that has a clear connection to the torture he had endured. I did not meet him finally due to his advanced stage of illness.

This is just one example of what seems to be usual destiny in the Basque country. Basque population must have the highest rate of prison experience in Europe. Nowhere else I met so many people who have been through prison and torture as in the Basque country. One would want to believe that people deprived of freedom somehow deserve it. But the people I encountered were exceptionally far from any image of a terrorist or criminal. Intellectual, somebody who happened to be working in a bar frequented by nationalists, the choice of the authorities often looks just random etc. The practice of the Spanish government is as follows – the person would be put into prison as a suspect. The suspect would spend a year or more in the harshest first grade prison level before facing charges. Later the charges would be dropped and the person released without any trial. Several cases have been brought successfully to the European Court of Justice, however the Spanish Government ignores the decisions of the court and refuses to pay compensation for their ‘mistakes’. Spanish government has been criticized and warned on various occasions in UN concerning the incompatibility of their application of law with human rights.

During the government of the conservative Partido Popular 1996 – 2004 José María Aznar released a set of special laws for the Basque country that were meant to combat terrorism. The adjustment would have as a consequence for example differences in interpretation of the law depending on where the crime was committed. It might cost you 12 years of prison if you would happen to burn a trash bin in Pamplona, whereas just some kilometers away in Logroño you might get away with a fine of 300 EUR.

Although ETA seized its activity, the Spanish Government insists on keeping special laws to combat terrorism introduced during that era. One of them is a deliberate dispersion of political prisoners, perpetuating the suffering of the families who visit their imprisoned family members traversing huge distances. In 2015 there were still 427 Basque political prisoners. If at the time of law’s introduction it might have had a certain, even then questionable, justification, now it seems like a mere caprice indulging in the sweetness of revenge. The government argues that lifting this law would do injustice to the families of the victims of terrorism. However, this is a highly arbitrary argument. The behaviour of Spanish government towards the Basque society and the changed political reality facing the end of the violent conflict seems to be unprecedented, in which they deny the fact, that there is a conflict, thus preventing peace process from any development from its most initial phase. To the outrage of international observers dealing with armed conflicts, after the definitive ceasefire ETA did not receive any assistance by the government and has been left by itself to deal with questions concerning weapons, refugees, political prisoners, etc. Spain seems thus to be the only country in the world where an armed group wants to disarm and the government makes it as difficult as possible.

Thus it is tempting to think that Spanish government needs an image of an enemy in that form and it would perpetuate the problem to keep the confrontation. In his book “Dirty War, Clean Hands” (Yale University Press, 2003) Paddy Woodworth meticulously describes the details of the antiterrorist war known as GAL in the 1980’s, as later evidence suggests, initiated by the socialist government of Felipe González. Several actions of death squads of GAL, deliberately assassinating people who were not involved in ETA activities, invoke the creeping impression, that the goal of this war was not to combat terrorism, but its opposite. Since the latter they succeed. The 1980’s were known in Spain as years of led, ‘años de plomo’, and innumerous victims were claimed from both sides, with ETA activity higher than ever in its history. At the same time terrorism seem to have always served well redirecting attention from internal affairs.

These days a prominent figure of Basque political scene, Arnaldo Otegi has been recently released from the prison after facing charge to revive the political arm of ETA Herri Batasuna. In her book “Endgame for ETA” (Oxford University Press, 2014) ” Theresa Whitfield skillfully describes the initial secret talks between Arnaldo Otegi, the de facto leader of the Basque left and Jesús Eguiguren form the Basque socialist party PSE. Reading the details of the compelling secret and deliberate process that lead ETA to declare definitive ceasefire it becomes once again obvious that Arnaldo Otegi is one of the central personalities for the peace process and if something he might deserve – it would be a Nobel prize for peace and not a prison sentence. Instead Otegi, the best communicator of the Basque left, has been held in prison since 2009 charged for taking part in a secret meeting with the accusation that he wanted to reorganize the political arm of ETA Herri Batasuna. However, it left unnoticed that the same meeting led to the definitive ceasefire of ETA. It was the judge Baltasar Garzón, famous internationally for the trial against Augusto Pinochet, who spoke out the prison sentence for Arnaldo Otegi applying the exceptional laws of the Aznar era. In an interview in 2015 even he admitted that for the peace process it does not make any sense that Arnaldo Otegi would continue imprisoned, since he would be able to contribute to the process much more being outside than inside. Although the 10 year sentence was reduced to six and half years by Spain’s Supreme Court, the willingness of Spanish Government to proceed with the peace process is more than questionable. Mr. Otegi has expressed his doubts in a written statement from the prison: “The governments of Spain and France need to extend the non-solution scenario because they fear that once that phase is over, the next scenario will be that of using the right to self-determination”.

Two main points that seem to be hopelessly stuck between the positions is the recognition that there is an unresolved conflict and it has claimed victims on both sides so far. Although it seems obvious, Spanish Government refuses to acknowledge the victims of the side of the nationalist independentist movement, simplifying the reality by acknowledging only victims caused by ETA, further denying that there is no conflict as such. According to the logic of the Spanish Government, there was a terrorist group, it is defeated and thus the conflict is not existing any more.

Based on her research and observations Theresa Whitfield ends her book “Endgame for ETA” with a following appeal to Spanish government: the peace has no price, however it does not come for free neither. The fact that the Spanish government fails to co-operate in the peace process might turn what seems to be peace in the Basque country into an elusive passing phenomena. The nationalist left with aspirations for the independence of the Basque country, making up around 15-20% of the Basque population, has been limited of means to organize themselves politically, since many of the political creations have been undermined with the accusation of reviving the political arm of ETA. As a result many political activists had to face prison sentences, thus again preventing them to be elected as political representatives in the future. More than one hundred ‘herriko tabernas’, bars that in the last 40 years used to be meeting places for the nationalist left, are supposed to be closed in near future following the decision of the Supreme Court several years ago. Numerous demonstrations happen on regular base in the Basque country protesting against the policy of dispersion, however are ignored and often do not even make it to the local news.

All this puts an enormous psychological strain on the nationalist left of the Basque country. It seems that even among the radical nationalist left the prospect of taking up arms again is not an option any more. However, it is still questionable what form the political will of the nationalist Basque left will take if political means are being deliberately limited and do not seem to have not even the most distant prospect of achieving their actual goal – the independence of the Basque country. The left wing coalition EH Bildu were in many municipalities far from successful in the last elections giving way to Podemos, a new left-wing Spanish party that gained the most votes in the region.

The peace process is in danger also because of the fact that one of the cornerstones of the nationalist left population mentality is a deep rooted mistrust in the political game. Spanish government fails to acknowledge the fact that majority of Basques deliberately did not vote for the constitution in 1978 and it is precisely this constitution that prevents Catalans and Basques to exit the Spanish state, requiring the consent of all the provinces of Spain. So, engaging in the politics for many people who consider themselves as nationalist left means playing the game where only the opponent can interpret and change arbitrarily the rules.

Even if Arnaldo Otegi with his unmistakable charisma would manage to create a somewhat uplifting atmosphere among the nationalist left when released from the prison, the loss of faith in the effectivity of political means among the nationalist left has run deep in the Basque history so as in the last years. Although pro-independence nationalist left makes by no means a majority of the Basque population, it nevertheless used to ’cause trouble’ during the years of ETA activity. Thus it raises the question how the energies of this part of the society will be channelled in a constructive way in the near future given the fact that ETA has left arms behind and the Spanish government at the same time blocks virtually any attempt for discussion and resolution of the conflict. Basque limbo might last, but it is not sure how long and what the outcome would be in the future.

More on Basques by Cactus:

#Otegi #Freethemall #FreeOtegi #Basque #ETA #Euskalherria



2 Responses to “Basque Limbo”

  1. Great article or coment about these daays situation in the Basque Country; very carefuly writen political analisys of the last yaears events in the Basque Country.
    ZORIONAK!! Congratulations!!

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