ETA terrorists giving up, but will it last?

Wednesday, 26. October 2011     0 comment(s)
Teemu Tammikko
Senior Research Fellow - The European Union research programme

More important than the future government's possible counter-terrorism policy is the determination of the Basque society to stand behind the peace process

On 20 October, the Basque terrorist organisation ETA announced a “definitive cessation of armed activities”. This was expected, since according to many counter-terrorism experts in Spain, successful policing against the organisation had weakened the terrorists to the point that there was no other alternative. Furthermore, social support to the group had been decreasing for a long time, since legal and institutional channels to promote the separatist cause had proved to be more efficient. Finally when the abertzale separatist movement – often considered as the political wing of the ETA – began to campaign for its legal right to participate in the municipal elections this spring and in the upcoming parliamentary elections in November, there was no air left to sustain the spark of ETA’s armed revolution alive.

Thus the big question regarding ETA’s decision is; will it last? Views on the credibility of the announcement vary. On the one hand many welcome the news with sincere optimism about a new, democratic era in Spain freed from the shadow of terrorism. The sceptics, on the other hand, see the whole “cessation” as yet another attempt to camouflage ETA’s need for a logistical break in order to close its ranks, or an electoral trick of the abertzale movement to carry the municipal success of last May into parliamentary elections in November. Such a view is not completely unjustified in the light of several previous failed ceasefires during the long and bitter history of the ETA.

Especially the hardliners of the conservative Partido Popular (PP), set to win the elections according to polls, tend to be critical about any political solution to the Basque question. Due to this, some worry that PP’s future government will adapt a far stricter counter-terrorism strategy and a non-negotiation policy towards the Basque separatists than the current socialist government, thereby suffocating the promising peace process. However, the leader of the PP and soon-to-be Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy commented on ETA’s announcement with laudable moderation in comparison to many of his fellow party members. According to him, ETA’s message is “an important step, although the peace of mind of the Spanish will only be complete when the ETA is dissolved and dismantled completely and irreversibly”. Rajoy’s careful wording indicates that the worries about PP “damaging” the peace process are most likely unnecessary.

More important than the future government’s possible counter-terrorism policy is the determination of the Basque society to stand behind the peace process. Celebrating the autonomy of the Basque Country during the Euskadi-day, the representatives of the Bildu coalition – the legal parts of the abertzale movement – stated that “political dialogue including all the sensitive issues within Euskal Herria [“greater” Basque Country that includes both the province of Navarra in Spain and three smaller provinces on the French side of the Basque region] is the only way with prospects of success in conflict resolution”. Keeping in mind that the abertzale movement has also sought visible international backing for its aspirations, for example from the veterans of the Northern Irish process, it is hard to consider the efforts as a mere electoral trick. Therefore further international recognition and support to the peace process would be welcome.

There is one lesson that should have been learned from the previous ceasefires and peace negotiations with the ETA: one has to look behind the political rhetoric of different parties to understand what is really going on. The fact is that ETA has not committed lethal attacks in more than two years; it has stopped demanding “revolutionary tax”, i.e. extortion money, from Basque businesses; the street fight kale borroka has not been used in months and the forthcoming elections in November will be the first ones during the history of democratic Spain without the threat of Basque terrorism. For the moment it also seems possible that the Bildu coalition may win as many as 3-5 deputies in the new parliament, which would encourage the separatists to stay on the legal path also in the future.

In sum, there are several reasons for being optimistic about the peace process in the Basque Country. However, it is necessary to keep in mind the Northern Irish experience: When the IRA gave up its armed struggle the violence did not disappear entirely, but continued to be committed by smaller groups. This can also happen in Spain. Therefore ETA’s decision is an important step in the right direction, but not yet the final one in achieving a happy ending to the conflict.

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