"One Step Forward, Two Steps Back"

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The Balkans have no monopoly on murderous tribalism. For most of the past three decades, three Western European states have been gripped by violent independence movements. In Northern Ireland, the Catholic I.R.A. has battled both the British government and the Protestant loyalist militias in a civil war that has left over 3,600 dead. In Spain, ETA guerrillas have killed 769 in bombings and shootings aimed at winning independence for the Basque country. In Corsica, bands have blazed a trail of smaller-scale but equally ruthless mayhem in a campaign to "liberate" the Mediterranean island from French control.

The past week has seen dramatic turning points in all three crises. The good news was that Ulster's warring factions finally sat side by side in a new Assembly that was granted substantial autonomy by the British Parliament. The bad news was that the other two movements seemed to be going the opposite way.

In Spain, ETA called off its 14-month truce and threatened new terrorist attacks within days. And in Corsica, terrorists bombed two government buildings in broad daylight--a new threshold of audacity that could have killed hundreds had the occupants not been evacuated following a last-minute warning.

The three situations, of course, are quite different despite their similarities. In Northern Ireland, rival paramilitaries were fighting across a religious and cultural divide under the shadow of British authority. In Spain, Basque-speaking nationalists seek an independent homeland in their historically distinct region. In Corsica, separatists seek independence from a French state accused of trampling on their cultural identity, treating them as second-class citizens and handling their homeland as an economic backwater since the island was annexed two centuries ago.

Yet the Ulster peace process offers some useful lessons that the other two movements--and governments--would do well to ponder. The first lesson is the need for political courage. As the local population became increasingly fed up with the Troubles, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams convinced the I.R.A. to silence its guns. After the Protestant paramilitaries followed suit, David Trimble ultimately persuaded his Ulster Unionist Party to join the government alongside its former enemies. The second lesson is that governments must show both steadfastness and flexibility. Down the years London refused to bow to terrorism. Yet Britain's willingness to devolve authority, and Ireland's renunciation of its territorial claim on Ulster, were vital contributions. The third lesson is the effectiveness of mediators. Former U.S. Senator George Mitchell played a key role in shaping the initial accord and stitching it back together when it seemed to be unraveling. There comes a time when countries must swallow their pride and concede that outsiders can help.

It is far from certain that this formula can be applied in Spain and France, though ETA appeared for a time to be bent on following the Irish example. In September 1998 they declared a unilateral ceasefire and even dispatched delegations to Belfast to study the I.R.A.'s strategy. But the Basque peace process quickly collapsed. The reason: the separatists would only discuss Basque self-determination, while the government would only talk about conditions for ETA's dissolution. With Madrid refusing to extend the region's already broad autonomy, the separatists, increasingly isolated by public opinion, apparently saw a return to violence as their only hope of survival.

In Corsica the situation is even more chaotic. On one side, the nationalist movement is hopelessly divided into quarreling factions that often mix organized crime with their patriotic rhetoric. On the other side, successive French governments have been inconsistent in their dealings with the island, first entering secret discussions then vowing to crack down with a largely rhetorical bravado. At times, French officials have appeared out of control: a former French prefect is under indictment for ordering the torching of illegally built restaurants, while infighting within the security services investigating the 1998 assassination of Prefect Claude Erignac apparently allowed his killer to escape.

Stunned by the latest bombings, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin last week invited all Corsican political parties to meet him in Paris to seek solutions to the impasse. It is unclear what can result, but one thing is sure: there is no place at the table for a George Mitchell. Says foreign policy analyst Dominique Moisi: "Can you imagine the French government accepting a U.S. mediator? It's unthinkable!"

And regrettable. As Mitchell showed in Northern Ireland, and Richard Holbrooke in Bosnia, perhaps the only force that can cut through generations of mutual hatred and distrust is an honest broker with international clout behind him. If an American is politically unacceptable, there are plenty of alternatives. But don't count on the proud governments of Madrid or Paris to consider them.

With reporting by Jane Walker/Madrid