After ETA Ceasefire, New Worries As Basque Separatists Make Political Comeback

A controversial Basque nationalist coalition scored big in last month’s local elections. Is the political success of separatists, which follows ETA’s decision last year to call a “permanent ceasefire,” a recipe for lasting reconciliation, or the seeds of

A Basque student rally for independence (www_ukberri_net)
A Basque student rally for independence (www_ukberri_net)
Sandrine Morel

At last week's swearing in ceremony in the Basque city of San Sebastián, the new mayor – Juan Carlos Izaguirre – wore a pin on his jacket lapel calling for official reconciliation with imprisoned members of the notorious ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), the separatist terrorist group.

Izaguirre, elected as the head of the third largest city in this autonomous region, is an independent member of Bildu, a Basque political grouping that was officially launched just this past April.

Bildu (meaning "gather" in Basque) is a political coalition made up of established separatist parties – such as Alternatiba and Eusko Alkartasuna – as well as several hundred independent politicians like Izaguirre who are politically aligned with the nationalist Abertzale Left movement.

This coalition has made it possible for the heirs of Batasuna, considered the political wing of ETA, to stage a comeback. Spain's Supreme Court banned Batasuna in 2003, calling the ETA-affiliated organization "anti-democratic."

In Spain's May 22 local elections, the Bildu coalition performed well in the Basque region, winning more than 25% of the vote to finish just behind the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). The PNV, however, failed to reach an alliance agreement with the Basque Socialist Party (PSE), essentially splitting the vote and allowing Bildu to win a total of 106 council seats. In San Sebastian, Bildu managed to finish first even though the PSE had governed the city for 20 years.

The elections also gave Bildu control of 59 out of 86 city councils in Guipuzcoa, the Basque Country's most radical province. It will also have control over the province's purse strings. Guipuzcoa has an operating budget of approximately 800 million euros.

Madrid watches with wary eye

The Spanish government is clearly uneasy about the election results, particularly as far as Guipuzcoa is concerned. Prior to the election, Bildu had been banned because of its alleged ties to Batasuna. But on May 5, the official kickoff for election campaigning, the Constitutional Court of Spain lifted the ban (6-5), allow Bildu to run its candidates.

Why is the Spanish government so worried? Not only will Bildu now manage about one billion euros worth of budget funds, it will also have access to confidential information, including tax data.

"In the past, whenever people close to ETA worked in public institutions, it made it possible for ETA to get information about its potential targets," says Florencio Dominguez, managing director of Vasco Press news agency.

Some observers fear that key projects, including the construction of a high-speed railway line connecting Madrid and San Sebastian, will be abandoned.

Maite Pagazaurtundua, president of the Foundation for Victims of Terrorism, says that "Bildu's victory in the local elections puts an end to all the work done by the regional government to delegitimize ETA." The person spearheading that effort was Francisco Javier "Patxi" López, a PSE politician who currently serves as the Basque region's president.

"Bildu is going to find arguments to justify violence, to demand imprisoned ETA members be pardoned, and to advocate for impunity," says Pagazaurtundua, who views Mayor Izaguirre's pro-ETA lapel pin as a dangerous omen.

During a press conference, the new mayor of San Sebastián declared he would take down a "No To ETA" banner that currently hangs on the city council building's facade. Izaguirre called the banner "meaningless."

Under pressure from Abertzale Left leaders, who are hoping for permission to participate in 2012 legislative elections, ETA announced a "ceasefire" in September 2010. It later declared that the ceasefire would be "permanent, general and verifiable." And in April, ETA stopped extorting "revolutionary taxes' from Basque area company directors.

"But the separatist organization is still refusing to disband and surrender its weapons," political expert Dominguez says. "Bildu has a new political agenda. First of all, Bildu wants imprisoned ETA members to be gathered in Basque prisons. It also wants to launch political negotiations that could lead to self-determination."

Bildu responds to their critics by saying the coalition's electoral success means ETA no longer needs to resort to violence. Saying the era of terrorist attacks is now over, Bildu spokesman Pello Urizar says it is high time to launch a process of normalization and democratization in the Basque Country.

"We are fighting to make it possible for all Basque political groups to have the same rights," he says.

Read the original article in French.

photo - www_ukberri_net

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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