MADRID — According to a Basque proverb, those who don't look forward, stay behind. One of Europe's longest nationalist wars may be drawing to a close with the news that the Spanish government is looking to the future by planning talks with the armed Basque separatist group ETA.
The group, which is responsible for the deaths of some 800 people in 30 years, called an indefinite, unconditional cease-fire in September. Madrid has now agreed to discuss a permanent end to the war - though without addressing any political issues. The government of Prime Minister Jos Mara Aznar last week authorized direct talks with the group, which may pave the way for a peace process inspired by and, in some ways, modeled on the negotiations in Northern Ireland.
For its part, ETA has proposed a list of topics for discussion that makes no mention of the thorniest issues demanded by Basque nationalists, including a referendum on self-determination. These would be discussed at a later gathering of all the political parties represented in the Basque country, ETA, and the government.
"I think there is a good chance they will stop the killing," says Maria Angeles Perez, a newspaper vendor in Madrid. "I think they should have talked before."
She admits that her attitude depends on the continuing truce. "When there's an attack, I change my views," she says. "Then, I want the government to punish them as they punish the innocent. But in the end, that's not logical."
New faces, new approach
It is perhaps a generational change in ETA, which was founded in 1959 during the Gen. Francisco Franco era, when Basques were repressed and harassed by the central government. Since the transition to democracy, the region has enjoyed a relatively high level of autonomy, and the Basque language, banned by the dictator, can be heard on any street in the region. New faces have appeared also in Herri Batasuna (HB), ETA's political wing, since the government jailed the party's entire leadership last November. This forced a fresh look at a strategy that was clearly failing for the separatists.
Mr. Aznar has decided that he can, or he must, trust ETA's truce. Those who know him well say the Prime Minister was inspired by British leader Tony Blair's experience in Ulster - the two discussed the talks at length when Mr. Blair visited Spain last Easter after the successful conclusion of the Good Friday peace accord.
Despite caution in the capital, Aznar is determined to seize the moment and has named two close associates to lead the talks with ETA. However, nothing has been made public about the format or subject of the discussions.
ETA has said the initial talks must address five points: An end to police persecution in France and Spain; transfer of ETA prisoners closer to the Basque country; a "solution" for ETA members in exile; an easing of conditions for prisoners who have completed most of their sentences; and a similar arrangement for the leadership of Herri Batasuna, imprisoned last November.
The fate of more than 500 prisoners, many held far from home, is an emotional issue in the Basque country. There are weekly demonstrations in Bilbao, San Sebastian, and other Basque towns. Izasku Beloki, who marches on behalf of her imprisoned brother Xabier, says, "I do hope that something will change now.... At least the government has modified its language. They might only be words, but they give me some hope."
"I'm sure the first contacts have been made," says Ander Txintxurreta, a Basque journalist with links to Herri Batasuna. "But to start a real peace process will take a lot more time.... and I imagine it will be a lot more discreet than Northern Ireland."
Wanted: the next Mitchell
There, the presence of former Sen. George Mitchell was crucial to the deal, but in Spain there are no plans for such an international mediator. Aznar is adamant that he needs "no interpreter and no intermediary."
This comes from Madrid's traditional view of the problem as one of terrorism rather than political discord.
On the Basque side, however, some names are bandied about: Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is said to be favored by the Basque National Party. Former US President Jimmy Carter is reported to have taken the political temperature during a visit to the Basque region last summer.
Once talks are under way, it is not clear what Aznar can give the Basque country, since it already enjoys a significant measure of autonomy, and he is not willing to offer a referendum on independence from Spain.
"One of the key questions is, 'Can Aznar offer anything on the political side that will resolve the [political] question?' " says a Western diplomat in Madrid. "I don't think he can."
However, there are reasons to believe that ETA would find a resumption of the war difficult. The organization is now isolated in Europe since the IRA cease-fire. Although the two were never formally linked, there have long been very close ties between their political wings. Herri Batasuna sent an observer to the Northern Ireland talks and Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, recently visited the Basque country to encourage a peace process there.
Aznar has responded swiftly to the new possibilities. A canny politician, he may be thinking ahead to general elections scheduled for 2000 - and wondering whether to bring them forward and sweep to victory on the promise of delivering peace.
Who Are the Basques?
* Homeland: The Basque people live in northeast Spain and southwest France in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains and areas bordering the Bay of Biscay. An estimated 850,000 Basques live in Spain and 130,000 in France. Basques were living in northern Spain as far back as the 3rd century BC, and have a long tradition as farmers, shipbuilders, and seafarers. They played a leading role in the colonization of the New World.
* Language: Their language is among the oldest in Europe, the only remnant of the tongues spoken in the region before the arrival of the Romans. It is unlike the Indo-European languages and its origin remains a mystery.
* History: Dating back to the Middle Ages, the Basques have retained a large measure of local autonomy under outside rule. Following the Spanish Civil War, in which many Basques opposed Gen. Francisco Franco, the dictator abolished the Basques' special privileges and banned their language. After the reestablishment of the Spanish monarchy in 1975, Basques pressed strongly for increased freedoms, which the government granted in 1978-79. However, militant separatists such as ETA, the Basque-language acronym for Basque Homeland and Liberty, remained unsatisfied.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Britannica, New American Desk Encyclopedia, Basque Culture and Arts Web site