Ban Has Basques Bracing for Bloodshed

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Supporters of the suspended Batasuna party protest at party headquarters

By outlawing Batasuna, the political arm of the separatist paramilitary organization ETA, the Spanish government may be headed for confrontation — not only with the extremists, but also with moderate nationalist majority in the Basque Country. Last Monday, the party's activities were suspended by Judge Baltasar Garzon, whose order was promptly enforced at the party's offices by police. The judge's ruling was based on his findings that Batasuna forms an integral part of ETA's structure and, as such, shares responsibility for the band's terrorist actions. The move coincided with a resolution passed on Monday in the Spanish Congress by a large bipartisan majority, urging the government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar to petition the Supreme Court for an outright ban on the party — the first such a measure since the restoration of democratic rule in Spain.

Despite the cross-party support in Madrid for the clampdown on Batasuna, in the Basque country — where the party represents an assertive minority of voters — it has left many wondering whether shutting down the political party will actually help curb ETA's attacks and the rising tide of street violence that has eroded the Basque social fabric over the last decade.

The decisions in Madrid are certainly likely to strain relations between the central government and the moderate Basque nationalist coalition that, a little over a year ago, decisively defeated the Basque subsidiaries of Spain's two major parties. In the same election, Batasuna's support was slashed by more than 40 percent, with the party drawing only 10 percent of the region's vote. The election underscored two political facts of the Basque Country — a resounding rejection by most voters of Batasuna, principally because of its inability to distance itself from ETA's violence; and at the same time a popular aversion to the strongly anti-nationalist positions of the mainstream Spanish parties. Moderate nationalism appeared to be the preference of the Basque electorate.

The new clampdown on Batasuna, however, may have more to do with the mainstream parties' bid to anchor their electoral support elsewhere in Spain than with finding a solution to the Basque conflict. The goal of Aznar's ruling Popular Party is "to defeat ETA," according its leader in the Basque country, Jaime Mayor Oreja. That message may attract voters elsewhere in Spain, but in the Basque Country, the citizenry's main desire is a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Last May, the Catholic bishops of the Basque archdioceses published a letter calling for a negotiated solution to the conflict. The Bishops were vehemently criticized by the Spanish Government, but their position appeared to reflect the aspirations of a large majority of Basques. To outsiders, the differences may appear to be simply a matter of nuance, but for those who live in Euskadi (as the territory is called in the Basque language), nuance may make all the difference. The mainstream Basque politicians want to defeat ETA and Batasuna by political means, continuing to isolate them at the ballot box — and they fear that forcing them out of the political process amid a climate of hostility to Basque nationalism may win new sympathy among Basques for the extremists.

Nobody's expecting Batasuna to go without a fight, and the party's most vocal leader, Arnaldo Otegi, has called on his party's supporters to resist what party spokesmen have called the government's "genocidal strategy." And in an environment of mounting attacks by militant young Batasuna supporters against "Spanish interests" and intimidation of elected officials, many in the Basque Country are bracing for intensified violence. ETA has also threatened to act against those who support the banning of the party — a stance which certainly helps Judge Garzon make his case that the political party and the terror group are intimately linked. But it also raises the specter of a new season of bloodshed by ETA and the aggravation of tension both in the Basque Country and in Spain.

Four years ago, many Basques welcomed an indefinite cease-fire declared by ETA as the light at the end of the tunnel. A little over a year later, however, the group called off the truce and shattered hopes of peace. Now, the Spanish Government has raised the stakes by seeking to defeat the extremist current in Basque nationalism through force. And both Madrid and Euskadi are bracing for the consequences.