ETA’s current predicament is a damning indictment of their political strategy – or lack thereof – over many years and at this moment in time their conditional offer of disbandment appears to be a desperate last throw of the dice, one which will undoubtedly fail.
The armed Basque separatist group, Euskadi ta Askatasuna (ETA), issued a statement offering to disband and negotiate a definitive end to their operations. On the surface, this may appear to be a significant move on the part of a group widely classified as a terrorist organisation. In reality, it merely demonstrates to what extent ETA have run out of options and, aside from the security threat which they likely still pose, just how irrelevant they have become to the political and constitutional future of their Basque homeland and of Spain.
ETA’s offer to disband is not unconditional. It would be the culmination of a “dialogue agenda” focusing on the consequences of the conflict, namely prisoners, refugees and the demilitarisation of the Basque Country. Furthermore, ETA continues to insist that Spain and France “recognise the truth and responsibility… [for] the violence which they have used during the conflict and the crimes they have committed.”
Those are substantial demands: difficult in practice and impossible politically for both Madrid and Paris. ETA appear to believe that their offer to disband is a bargaining chip equal to their list of demands. If that is so, it clearly shows how detached they have become from the realities of today.
ETA are weak and everybody knows it. Their alleged operational leaders have been arrested, usually in France, with striking regularity – perhaps as many ten in four years. Most recently, Izaskun Lesaka was arrested in October, bringing the total number of suspects arrested in 2012 alone to twenty-four. The previous operational leader, Oroitz Gurruchaga Gogorza, was arrested in May and such a high turnover in leadership positions over a sustained period can only have lead to a serious degradation of ETA’s capacity.
In short, no politician in Madrid or Paris will ever accept any demand from a terrorist group widely regarded as being in its death throes. Indeed, the Spanish Minister of the Interior, Jorge Fernández Díaz, simply responded that the only statement he wished to hear from ETA was that they had “unconditionally disbanded.”
The frequent arrests of ETA leaders begs another question, based on Mao Zedong’s famous assertion that “a guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” Since ETA operatives have presumably had to adopt stringent security measures to avoid capture (albeit unsuccessfully) then how can they understand the current political and social realities of the Basque Country and of Spain? The answer must be that they do not, a conclusion borne out by their recent statement.
The Partido Popular (PP) government in Madrid is wrestling with an economic crisis and mass unemployment, not to mention a serious threat to the constitution and territorial integrity of Spain emanating from Catalonia. Given the political – i.e. Francoist – origins of the PP, they would hardly have been inclined to negotiate directly with ETA at the best of times. In these very bad times, that is a political impossibility for Mariano Rajoy and his government. If anything, taking a hard line on ETA may even help them score some political brownie points to offset, however slightly, the major problems they face.
Currently the real separatist threat to Spain comes not from the Basque Country but from Catalonia, even if elections held there on Sunday somewhat weakened the position of the ruling Convergència i Unió (CiU) party. Nonetheless, Catalan President Artur Mas’ plan to hold a referendum in 2014 is the most serious threat to the territorial integrity of Spain for some time. In that context, it is incredible that ETA could think that the Spanish government would agree to talk to them – a ‘terrorist’ organisation – when Madrid has already made clear that it will appeal to the constitutional courts to counter a democratic independence movement in Catalonia.
As for democratic nationalism in the Basque Country, the largest party has always been Euzko Alderdi Jeltzalea (Partido Nacionalista Vasco or EAJ-PNV), who held power in the autonomous region for thirty years until 2009 when they were ousted by a Socialist-led, pro-centrist coalition. Aside from the complex relationships EAJ-PNV have had in the past with more radical Basque nationalists, including ETA, their current priority must be to regain power and mount a challenge to Madrid similar to that of the Catalan CiU. In this context, and contrary to what they apparently believe, ETA have no place in the current political firmament of the Basque Country.
ETA are at best an extremely marginal player in political terms and evidently severely degraded in operational terms. Their current predicament is a damning indictment of their political strategy – or lack thereof – over many years and at this moment in time their conditional offer of disbandment appears to be a desperate last throw of the dice, one which will undoubtedly fail.
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