Basque Country Needs Peace

A decades-old conflict between ethnic separatists and Spain's government rages on

THE harmful effects of ethnic nationalism are quite familiar to many Americans, particularly with the recent news coverage of such areas as Bosnia, Chechnya, and Quebec. However, most Americans, including many policymakers, have ignored the violent and pernicious nationalism currently troubling Spain.

For the US to continue ignoring Spain would be especially discouraging, since nationalism and its repercus- sions threaten to bring down the government of Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez. Not only is Spain a member of both NATO and the European Union - it enjoys a substantive economic and security relationship with the United States. Earlier this month, business and political leaders from both Spain and the US pledged to establish stronger economic, political, and cultural ties. President Clinton will stop in Madrid Sunday.

Spain's recent instability is directly tied to the existence of a fierce nationalist movement in the Basque country, which is situated in northern Spain and southern France on the Bay of Biscay. The Basques are an ancient people with a distinct culture and a language apparently unrelated to any other. Following the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, the authoritarian dictatorship of Francisco Franco vowed to unify Spain and eradicate all separatist movements. As a result, ETA, or Basque Homeland and Liberty, was established in 1959 as a group committed to the independence of the Basque region. In 1968, ETA killed its first victim, a member of Spain's Civil Guard; it has since assassinated nearly 800 people, mostly members of the police, Army, and Civil Guard.

No cease-fire

Unlike Northern Ireland, where a cease-fire between the IRA and the British government has lasted for 15 months, peace has eluded Spain. ETA has stepped up its attacks on visible political figures over the last year. Gregorio Ordonez, the leader of the opposition Partido Popular (PP) in the Basque country, was killed by ETA commandos in January. Jose Maria Aznar, the widely popular leader of the PP, survived an assassination attempt in April, and three ETA commandos were arrested in Majorca in August for attempting to kill King Juan Carlos.

Why has peace been so difficult to achieve in the Basque country? Both ETA and the Spanish government are responsible for the lack of progress.

r First, the government has lost credibility. Several former and present government officials have been charged with organizing and funding the Antiterrorist Liberation Groups (GAL), a paramilitary squad that carried out a ''dirty war'' against Basque terrorists between 1983 and 1987. Among those accused of approving the antiterrorist operation are the prime minister, who has adamantly maintained his innocence.

In July, the Catalan nationalist party, Convergencia i Unio (CiU), formally severed its political alliance with Mr. Gonzalez's Socialist Party. Jordi Pujol, the CiU's popular leader, acknowledged that ''this government has lost its credibility.'' On Nov. 23, Gonzalez suffered a serious blow when the parliament approved a Supreme Court request to lift the immunity of Jose Barrionuevo, the minister of interior from 1982 to 1988, so that he could be questioned as a suspect in helping organize GAL. In addition to the probe already under way in the Supreme Court, the Spanish Senate voted in October to establish its own independent inquiry.

Recent public-opinion polls have clearly demonstrated the public's growing impatience with Gonzalez. In a poll published by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo in July, 63 percent of Spaniards believed he knew about GAL and 59 percent thought he should resign. A similar poll conducted in October found that 57 percent believed Gonzalez should stand trial.

r Second, ETA, supported by its political wing, Herri Batasuna (HB), continues to use terrorism in its crusade to achieve independence. Radical Basque nationalists have argued that since the Spanish government refuses to grant them independence, they are living under a ''dictatorship.'' HB spokesman Floren Aoiz recently stated that ''the armed struggle exists because democratic channels to develop the Basque country do not exist.... Only the Basque people themselves can decide which route to take.'' This argument makes little sense, however, in a country that has completed a remarkable transition to democracy. When democracy was consolidated after Franco's death in 1975, the Basques regained the privileges they had once enjoyed. They established their own parliament, political parties, police, civil service, and schools where their language (Euskera) was spoken.

Dialogue sought

In May, HB sent letters to the three leading political parties pressing them to begin a dialogue to find ''political solutions'' to the conflict in the Basque country. Gonzalez responded by saying that he refused to ''talk with terrorists.'' Only one month before, he pointed out, ETA had attempted to assassinate Mr. Aznar.

Peace will not be easy to achieve. There is a significant amount of mistrust and animosity between the government and the radical Basque nationalists. Some of this is warranted. But progress is essential. ''It does not seem acceptable that we should be the only ones in the heart of Europe unable to solve our problem,'' acknowledged Jose Antonio Ardanza, the lehendakari, or president, of the Basque regional government.

For peace talks to begin, ETA must demonstrate its willingness to relinquish violence, much like the IRA and the PLO have done. While advocating eventual independence for the Basque country, the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) has wisely chosen to work within the democratic system and shun the terrorism of ETA. ETA must now follow in the PNV's footsteps. And if ETA can prove that it truly wants peace, the government must be ready to listen.

US encouragement of peace talks in the Middle East and Northern Ireland has helped move those respective peace processes forward, even in the face of substantial opposition. The United States should now do the same for Spain, provided, of course, ETA is willing to lay down its arms. Bilateral cajolery, as well as effective lobbying in the EU, could help bring the parties to the table. Indeed, a stable and secure Spain would be beneficial for both Europe and the United States.

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