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Europe: Separatism On The Rise In Spain's Basque Region

Prague, 27 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- One of the longest and bloodiest terrorist-style nationalist disputes has been played out in the Basque area of northeastern Spain. Hard-line ETA terrorists are committed to establishing an independent Basque nation through violence. They regard autonomy and moderation, it has been reported, as the way of weaklings and fools.

The separatist movement promoted in the region by both French and Spanish Basques reveal how nationalism may cut through the borders of neighboring countries. The Basques of Spain are the more active ones.

Under the Franco dictatorship, Basque nationalism was repressed and the language, not known to be related to any other one, forbidden. Today, the Basques of Spain have cultural and some political autonomy, though not the complete independence that many desire.

After a two-year constitutional process culminating in the home-rule referendum of 1979, the Basque country and Catalonia formally became autonomous regions inside Spain. Decrees of autonomy, overwhelmingly approved in public referenda, gave the two regions power to elect their own parliaments, to control taxation, education and police, and to supervise broadcasting.

On the surface it seemed that democratic devolution of power from the central government had solved Spain's most pressing problem. Nevertheless, residues of separatism remained strong and dangerous for the stability of the state. And separatist violence continues in the Basque region to this day.

Just last week, Spain's government warned of a possible violent backlash by Basque ETA terrorists after officials shut a newspaper accused of links to the outlawed separatist group. It was the first newspaper to be banned in Spain since the death of General Francisco Franco in 1975 after nearly four decades of dictatorial rule.

Interior Minister Jaime Mayor Oreja said authorities could not rule out the possibility that ETA might target a major national figure such as King Juan Carlos or Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. Mayor Oreja also denied accusations by Basque separatists that the shutdown violated the right of free expression enshrined in Spain's Constitution.

Despite the closure, the paper's editors succeeded in publishing a makeshift edition one day later under the name "Euskadi informacion." Euskadi is the Basque word for Basque Country. Mainstream Basque nationalists expressed concern that the government had overstepped constitutional bounds, while radical separatists condemned it as an act of repression reminiscent of the Franco era.

ETA sees the Popular Party as heirs to Franco and has murdered six town councilors from the ruling party in the past 12 months. Overall, ETA has killed more than 800 people in its 30-year fight for an independent state, encompassing parts of northern Spain and southern France.

Basque regional President Jose Antonio Ardanza has proposed a possible way to end the armed struggle, based on the premise that neither policing nor political measures have so far managed to resolve the Basque conflict.

Ardanza, a highly respected and influential figure, says there has to be a "political incentive" for ETA to end its armed struggle. He reportedly suggests that incentive could be to include ETA's legal political wing, Herri Batasuna, in negotiations on the future of the region.

But perhaps Ardanza's most controversial proposal is that the talks would lead to a referendum on sovereignty for the Basque region, the outcome of which would be definitive and binding on the Spanish government. The possibility of such a referendum has long been one of ETA's main demands.

The BBC has recently reported that the plan could face difficulty in two areas -- first, in persuading Spain's center-right coalition government to agree to a referendum precondition, and second, in involving Herri Batasuna in talks.

Last December, Spain's Supreme Court jailed all 23 leaders of the ETA's legal political wing on terrorism charges.

The coming year could be decisive for determining the direction of events in the region -- both with the peace plan in the offing and with Basque parties preparing for elections to their regional parliament in October.

(This is the second story in a five-part series on autonomy conflicts.)