Basques take political tack

Separatists' gathering Feb. 7 took the first step: a cross-borderassembly.

Things have been fairly quiet in Spain's long-troubled Basque region of late, but expectation is mounting as the push for independence becomes more firmly a political, rather than a rebel, movement.

Two weeks ago in a historic moment, more than 600 elected mayors and councilors gathered in a Pamplona cinema to vote unanimously on the creation of a cross-border political institution grouping local Basque politicians from Spain and France.

The Feb. 7 gathering "will be remembered as the definitive step toward the construction of a Basque nation," says Kepa Gordejuela, spokesman for Herri Batasuna, the political wing of the armed separatist group ETA (a Basque-language acronym for Basque Homeland and Freedom).

The group has killed more than 800 people in its 30-year war for independence from Spain. But weakened by police operations and following the lead of the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland, ETA called an indefinite truce last September.

The governing Popular Party called the gathering "a farce" and a "provocation." But Gemma Mendieta, a Herri Batasuna delegate, believes it must get used to the new reality. "It is the end of a century, and the end of a century is a time for reflection," she says. "It is time to bet on the future."

The declaration creates an Assembly of Municipal Representatives of Euskal Herria, as these Basques call their prospective homeland. The hilly, industrial region is split between southern France and the autonomous Basque Country region in Spain. Basque nationalists also claim the province of Navarra, whose capital is Pamplona, home to the famous bull runs each July.

Governing an autonomous region set up following the 40-year Franco dictatorship that ended in 1975, the Basque Parliament in Vitoria can make many local decisions, whether Madrid likes them or not.

The latest example to infuriate the central government is the decision to invite Kurdish deputies to meet in Vitoria in July.

Spanish Prime Minister Jos Mara Aznar vowed Wednesday to try to block the meeting, describing it as a propaganda tool for terrorists. "I want to appeal to the common sense and responsibility of those who made this decision to reconsider it and to cancel it."

Mr. Aznar's effort came days after Turkey's arrest of Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan.

Turkey has complained bitterly, but the Basque Parliament, led by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), has refused to call off the gathering. The party claims the Basque Country will be a member of the European Union by 2004 - a difficult goal.

The Spanish government has yet to begin substantive talks with ETA, and does not seem willing to discuss any of the issues dear to the nationalist heart, such as a referendum on self-determination. In Madrid, many believe the real issue is that of violence: If there is no killing, there is no problem. Although street violence continues in the Basque country - firebombings of banks and political party offices, plus threatening letters to political enemies - it is not enough to derail the nationalist policy.

Times have changed since the truce. Moderate nationalists no longer have to apologize for murders committed in the name of the Basque people and can focus on political aspirations.

"I notice we are living in much more tranquillity - you can now see Civil Guards getting out of their cars without their guns," says Jos Ignacio Diaz, a postal-service official who was fishing off the harbor wall in the town of San Sebastian.

He lost interest in politics as a young man, when several buddies were jailed for involvement in the nationalist cause. But he believes the separatists are on a roll. "They've taken the initiative," he explains. "Now they can say openly, 'We want total independence.' "

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