ETA Declares Peace. Is Spain Ready to Believe It?

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Javier Etxezarreta / EPA

People read the front pages of Basque newspapers some of which carry the headline 'Finally!' in relation to ETA'S statement to stating a 'definitive cessation' of it's armed activity, in San Sebastian, Basque Country, northern Spain, 21 October 2011

The words Spaniards have waited 43 years to hear finally came on Thursday evening. In a video sent to a handful of media outlets, three masked figures wearing the typical beret of the Basque country appeared on screen and declared, "ETA has decided to bring its armed activity to a definitive cessation." And with that, the separatist violence that has plagued Spain for more than four decades — and left 829 people dead — appeared to end.

It was, in many ways, a death foretold. In the past several years, ETA, which was formed in 1959 to fight for an independent Basque homeland and committed its first attack in 1968, has grown progressively weaker, while the demands for peace have only increased, spreading even to the group's historical allies. But the news still left Spaniards debating the reasons for the declaration and, perhaps more significantly for the peace process, wondering if they could trust it.

"It's no surprise that this happened," says Ignacio Sánchez-Cuenca, political scientist at Madrid's Juan March Institute and author of several books about ETA. "I'm simplifying here, but you can see two basic causes: the fact that as ETA has diminished, it has been easier for the police to control, while at the same time, the support for a political solution among the Basque nationalist left has grown."

Cooperation between Spanish, French, and Portuguese authorities has decimated ETA's leadership in recent years, leaving the band with what experts estimate are only 50 active members. Seven hundred convicted members of the separatist group are currently serving prison sentences, and ETA has staged no attacks since March 2010, and none on Spanish soil since June 2009.

For security expert Ignacio Cosidó, member of parliament for the opposition Popular Party, those efforts explain why ETA has said it is abandoning violence. "The declaration is due above all to the efficiency of police and security forces," he says. "ETA finds itself so weak that it really had no other choice."

But politics clearly played a role, too. In February, Batasuna — the illegal party long-seen as the political wing of ETA — announced that it rejected violence and would denounce any committed by ETA. "At that moment," says Brian Currin, the South African mediator who has played a central role in negotiating for peace in the Basque Country, "the ballot defeated the bullet. It was clear that the 'patriotic left' was committed to politics."

Although Spain's constitutional court barred Sortu, a party with clear links to Batasuna, from participating in local elections in May, it permitted a new coalition of pro-independence parties called Bildu to run. Bildu won 25% of the vote, and currently controls the municipal government in San Sebastian, as well as those of several other towns and cities.

Their presence in power has, in many ways, made ETA irrelevant. "It's precisely the support that Basque society has given to Bildu that convinced ETA that violence no longer made sense," says Rafa Larreina, a leader of Eusko Alkartasuna, one of the parties that comprises Bildu. "The coalition proved to ETA that politics works."

An international peace conference held over the weekend in San Sebastian provided the final push. Participants, who included former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan, former Irish prime minister Bertie Ahern, and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, as well as Mr. Currin, called on ETA to reject armed activities and suggested it begin negotiations with the governments of Spain and France. Jimmy Carter and Tony Blair later lent their support to the statement.

"For ETA, the conference was necessary," says Professor Sanchéz-Cuenca. "Because the Spanish state had refused to negotiate with them, they needed international mediators to fill the void. This way, they could show they were responding to an international call."

Both the media and government leaders across Spain's political spectrum are treating the declaration as serious, and have received it with cautious satisfaction. "We will have a democracy without terrorism, but not without a memory," said prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero in a televised statement Thursday night.

Nevertheless, ETA has not always lived up to its promises. Most notably in recent years, it broke its own "permanent ceasefire" in December 2006 by exploding a bomb in a parking lot at Madrid's Barajas Airport, killing two.

"Experience makes us prudent," says Mr. Cosidó, who was at a meeting with police and other security forces when news of the announcement broke. "The first reaction was a certain distrust. This declaration may be clearer and stronger than others, but ETA has broken its promises before."

Others, however, see new reasons to take ETA at its word. "There are important differences with past declarations," says Bildu member Larreina. "For one, ETA announced in April that it was abandoning its so-called 'revolutionary tax' — its extortion of funds. Without financing, it can't exist."

Getting to the point where ETA no longer exists, however, will require months if not years of delicate negotiations. The Spanish government wants to see ETA hand over its weapons and apologize to its victims, while the group's supporters are hoping for immediate signals of good faith in the form of the release, or at least improved treatment, of prisoners currently serving sentences, and a recognition of the State's historic repression of the Basque people. And with general elections just a month away, the question of whether Batasuna will be allowed to participate in the form of a new coalition called Amaiur weighs heavily.

"Until now, we've been involved in a process of conflict transformation," says mediator Currin. "Now is when the real peace process begins."