The Basque terrorist group ETA announced a “permanent ceasefire” on Wednesday 22 March and urged the Spanish and French governments to start a “democratic process” in the Basque Country. After 48 years and 850 deaths in the name of independence, the difficult road to peace seems to be closer.
International governments are hopeful, but are nonetheless cautious, as the dozens of truces proposed by ETA so far have failed. The most significant was in 1998, when the terrorist group proposed an “indefinite truce without conditions.” Yet after 14 violence free months, ETA reemerged with a series of bloody attacks, which showed that the truce had only served to reassemble (or rearm) the group.
From the “indefinite truce” to the “permanent ceasefire”
Now, the context is different. Since 2003, political and judicial pressure has weakened the structure of the organization, which has gone for 1000 days without committing a single assassination. Although attacks against tourism interests and the extortion of Basque businessmen who refuse to pay the revolutionary tax haven’t stopped. Furthermore, ETA, for the first time, has decided that it can’t lead the negotiations and it appears to have delegated this role to Batasuna, the political arm of Basque independence, criminalized since 2002.
The next step was taken by the Spanish president, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero: he obtained authorisation from parliament to start a series of talks with ETA, with the condition that the terrorist organisation handed over their weapons. It was a solemn solution adopted by all the parties except the Partido Popular (Popular Party, PP). The Spanish conservatives turned their backs on the dialogue, and are now the most skeptical of ETA’s ceasefire announcement. The truce is not a “resignation”, stated the leader of the opposition, Mariano Rajoy (PP), who has also reiterated that he will not accept a political price being paid to the terrorist organization. That said, the press release does not mention the dissolution of the group, the term “permanent ceasefire” is a significant advance on the “indefinite ceasefire” of 1998.
The bargaining chip of Rodríguez Zapatero
The ball is now in Zapatero’s court, as he will have to display his true character to start a peace process which is politically very risky and which he himself has defined as “long and complicated.” On the one hand he will have to deal with demands from the independent left such as the rapprochement of those imprisoned in the Basque Country, the legalisation of Batasuna and the quashing of the various open indictments against the various legal structures surrounding ETA since 1998 without forgetting the right to self- determination. On the other, he will have to deal with the contempt of the influential Associations of Victims of Terrorism and with the unwavering attitude of the PP. In short, Zapatero will have to perform a real balancing act not to fall into the ring of the political circus without a safety net. Nevertheless, there is a great political prize if he succeeds converting himself into the “Spanish Blair” and leading the peace process the way the British Prime Minister did in Belfast.
The Basque Country’s conflict is not just a Spanish issue. The involvement of the EU “could be a very important factor in the development of the peace process” said Gorka Elejabarrieta, member of the international Batasuna team. The precedent set by Northern Ireland, which took twelve years to achieve peace, shows that the process is not easy. Even so, ETA’s ceasefire is an historic opportunity which must be seized.