Spain: ETA on a new track

A third government inquiry affirms the Basque separatist group's truce was sincere.

When arsonists destroyed José Antonio Mendive's family business last month, he did not hesitate to cast blame.

"It was terrorism, pure and simple," says the town councilman from the Navarra region. Many suspect supporters of Basque separatist group ETA were responsible.

But in the context of ETA's recent cease-fire, little is pure or simple. Since March 22, when the group declared an end to nearly 40 years of armed struggle for Basque independence, Spain has sought to determine whether the outlawed group's avowal of a "permanent" cease-fire was, in fact, sincere.

Several incidents of extortion and violence in April made many Spaniards, including opposition leaders in Parliament, skeptical. The Socialist administration, however, appears satisfied that ETA is on a new track, and is turning its attention to the next step: garnering support for opening peace talks with ETA through its banned political wing, Batasuna.

"We're seeing signs that suggest a new attitude," said Secretary of Communication Fernando Moraleda last Thursday, as the government announced that its third investigation of ETA's activities affirmed that the group was complying with the truce.

Mr. Moraleda's statement followed Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero's most recent round of discussions with leaders of other parties, through which the prime minister is preparing to request - probably in June - that Parliament permit his government to openly negotiate with Batasuna.

At the moment, the chief obstacle to such negotiations is disagreement over Batasuna's legal status. Spain's 2003 Law of Parties, which banned political organizations that supported terrorism, made the Basque party illegal.

But ETA's cease-fire has opened a door for reviving Batasuna's legitimacy. "If everything continues as it is supposed to, it's inevitable that Batasuna will be a legal party again," says Juan Avilés, terrorism expert at Spain's Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia. "ETA is not going to give up its weapons for nothing; it's going to demand a concession."

Still, after years of deadlock between Batasuna and the government - especially under the administration of José María Aznar, Zapatero's conservative predecessor - over control of the Basque region, it will be difficult to restore the nationalist group to the fold of legitimate parties.

"It is one of the ironies - or pathologies - of these peace processes that a party denounced for years now becomes acceptable," says Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, a political scientist at Madrid's Complutense University. "But Batasuna has made some radical changes. It wasn't long ago it insisted only Basque nationalists had the right to decide the Basque country's future, yet now it recognizes it must include political forces it disagrees with."

Basque nationalists and their supporters believe the Spanish government's position on Batasuna must also change - and soon. "From the point of view of conflict resolution, it defies belief that a key political party would be illegal," observes Eoin O'Broin, director of European Affairs for the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein.

Indeed, the greatest danger to the peace process, according to Mr. O'Broin, is that reinstatement won't come quickly enough. "New forms of political engagement need to be shown to work."

Ten years' experience in the Irish peace process gives the Sinn Fein spokesman hope that Spain's change of government two years ago will nourish the current peace efforts.

"The IRA called a cease-fire in 1994 that collapsed because of John Major, but in 1996 and 1997, Tony Blair decided to break with Major's strategy of repression and criminalization, and we got the Good Friday accords - there's a lesson there for Zapatero," says O'Broin. "ETA's 1998 truce received no reciprocal response from [then prime minister] Aznar, so the process broke down, and it wasn't until [Zapatero's] Socialist government came to power that something happened."

Spaniards remain cautious about the prospects for a lasting peace, and are still sharply divided about whether last month's low-level street violence, known by the Basque phrase kale borroka, constitutes a rupture in the cease-fire.

In April, extortion letters allegedly authored by ETA were delivered to various Navarrese businessmen, generating a hot debate about whether they were authored before or after the cease-fire.

And in addition to the attack in Barañaín on Mr. Mendive's hardware store, a group of hooded figures in the Basque town of Getxo lobbed Molotov cocktails into an insurance company's offices.

"Of course the truce is broken," says Mendive in a telephone interview. "You have to call things by their true names." But others are more equivocal.

"There have been no deaths, no bombs," says Mr. Sánchez-Cuenca, who agrees with the government's assessment. "Kale borroka represents a gray area, and it's not clear who is responsible. But it does not appear that ETA is the direct author."

Batasuna's public mention of the two incidents - calling them "very grave" and expressing hope that "such actions will not occur again" - has also encouraged those who believe in ETA's good intentions.

"ETA called the truce of 1998 for political reasons, and it broke down for political reasons," says Sánchez-Cuenca, who has dedicated his career to studying the terrorist group. "But this cease-fire happened because ETA is debilitated - it's a totally different situation."

After four decades of violence and failed peace efforts, hope is growing that this time the outcome will be different, too.

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