Szekler National Council

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  • Székely Nemzeti Tanács

By Judith Matloff

2012, BILBAO, Spain

Political violence was so rampant in the Basque Country in the mid 1980s that local journalists devised a pro-forma for the weekly bloodshed.

Fill in the blank: policeman/soldier/guard was killed/injured by a bomb/bullet. The one constant was that the separatist guerrillas, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or Basque Homeland and Freedom (ETA), always claimed responsibility.

It was grim fare, and nowhere more so than in the dying industrial port of Bilbao. The birthplace of ETA was such a noxious casserole of strikes, discontent, and pollution that the fecal gases rising from the Nervion River running through town mirrored the despair of its people. Even the bars seemed gloomier than in the rest of Spain. With 35 percent unemployment due to a decline in the Basques’ lifeblood of shipbuilding and steelworks, people had less to spend, and besides, with all the viciousness, few were inclined to party.

That was then. Today, the region’s rejuvenation is so spectacular urban planners around the globe glow about the “Bilbao Effect.” This violent dump has transformed itself into a tourism magnet that attracts more than one million visitors a year. The semi-autonomous government of the Basque Country brilliantly invited the Guggenheim Museum to open its titanium-clad branch here in 1997, catalyzing an extraordinary rebirth of the region’s largest city and beyond. Frank Gehry’s iconic building helped draw a parade of other starchitects to craft a public metro system and promenades along the river, whose water is now so clean people eat fresh perch from it.

Bilbao also replaced the stinking junkyards with an innovative services industry that hums with jobs, unlike most of Spain. The unemployment rate in Basque Country hovers under 15 percent, well below the national average of over 25.

Even more dramatic is the withering of violence. ETA has not killed anyone in three years, and public sympathy for the group has deflated among the two million Basques. ETA has been observing a ceasefire since September 2010, placing on hold its struggle for independence that slaughtered 829 people over a 50-year period. Last October the group declared the armed struggle over. While there’s always the chance that one of the 100 estimated hardcore activists who remain might shoot a policeman, many analysts believe the end has arrived.

“ETA has hit a dead end. It’s lost legitimacy,” says Gorka Landaburu, one of the region’s most authoritative commentators, who writes for the weekly Cambio 16. His left thumb was blown off by a letter bomb in 2001, and he unconsciously massages the gnarled stump as he speaks. Though Landaburu still travels with two bodyguards, the notion that he could one day spontaneously meet a friend for a beer no longer seems like a wild fantasy. He points to public opinion polls that show support for ETA’s violence has eroded from 10 to 1 percent of the population. “There’s no going back. Society has changed.”


That such a motivated rebellion waned suggests that lessons from the Basque Country could resolve entrenched ethnic conflicts elsewhere. From Russia to Indonesia, governments are learning that the best way to neuter separatism is to make sure people have jobs and then leave them alone to elevate their linguistic and social identity. In short, with a strong dose of autonomy and wealth, fighting recedes.

Since the end of the Cold War, the role of ethnicity in conflict has expanded, claiming millions of lives. New nations emerging from the rubble of war are all too often imagined artificial communities, where minority tensions continue to bedevil peacekeepers. Tribalism and identity have bled into politics from Aceh to Abkhazia, Kurdistan to Kashmir. There are so many more—Palestine, India, North Caucasus, Rwanda, Mali, Burma, Thailand, Nigeria, the Balkans, Sudan, Sri Lanka, China, Kenya. In an ideal world, everyone would get along under one political system, but that simply doesn’t work if minorities feel marginalized or exploited.

The Basque Country presents an intriguing formula that boils down to two factors—prosperity and de facto self-rule. In order to suck life out of the independence struggle, Spain cleverly ceded substantial fiscal and political powers to the region while restoring the Basque language, Euskera, to the public sphere. Meanwhile, prosperity grew, spurred in part by European Union funds. At the same time, ETA, under pressure from security forces, lost substantial public sympathy by switching assassination targets from police to civilians like Landaburu. Many of its new victims were journalists, politicians, and judges who dared question ETA’s violent methods. But the biggest change came when greater power over regional affairs and an invigorated economy formed a mix potent enough to dilute radicalism.


For nearly 2,000 years, the Basques resisted domination by other groups. There was no reason to assume they would complacently accept Madrid’s supremacy, which began in the early 16th century and has continued intermittently ever since. Wedged between two mountainous barriers, the Pyrenees and the Cordillera Cantabrica, the Basques had isolated their customs and culture. The Basque tongue replete with x’s and z’s relates to no other on earth and is unusual for having been spoken continuously in one place for millennia. Throughout their history, Basques fiercely protected their territory from Visigoths, Romans, and Moors. They have defended their Euskera language, which serves as the cornerstone of nationalism today. (The word for ETA’s imagined state is Euskalherria, or “land of the Basque tongue.”) From Roman times, mountain Basques resisted Latinization, but in 1876, the central Spanish government abolished the fueros, or medieval codes, that gave Basques a degree of self-rule.

Anxiety about identity and freedom deepened in 1937, when dictator Francisco Franco punished the Basque provinces that dared resist him in the Spanish Civil War. He spent the next four decades trying to obliterate Basque culture, banning folk dancing and festivals as well as a host of other practices that define Basque identity. People were jailed for speaking Euskera. Not surprisingly, ETA emerged in 1959 with an extremist agenda hinged on cultural survival.

ETA’s fantasy is still to unite the Basques of Spain and France, a dream quashed when Spain embraced democracy after Franco’s death. The 1978 Constitution created 17 semi-autonomous communities, whose regional governments administer education, health and social services, and economic development. The Basque region, combining the three main provinces Vizcaya, Guipuzcoa, and Alava, was granted substantial powers, including policing. The new system gave the Basque region its own flag and parliament and control over hospitals, museums, roads, and schools. Basques could now collect their own taxes, appoint their own cops, and teach and speak Euskera again. ETA activity flared in the 1980s after the adoption of the new constitution. But over the last three decades the general populace gradually grew to appreciate the benefits of self-governance within a Spanish federation.

Spain’s entry into the European Community in 1986 helped the Basque region take off economically. As the economy rebounded, ordinary Basques recognized that independence could be won more effectively with computer skills than guns. The Basques, who were long the industrial and banking engine of Spain, took advantage of millions of euros of European development funds and reinvented themselves as leaders in technology, tourism, and research. Private enterprise helped finance the landmarks of Bilbao and pioneer new businesses. The Basques themselves had the vision to pour resources into engineering and design.

Autonomy further helped the Basques restore their language. Allowing children to learn Euskera at a young age can do wonders for promoting identity. Ask Basques what it means to be Basque, and one will hear a simple response—language. At the core of nation building in Spain was a common tongue, which pushed Euskera to the periphery of power, even though the Basque Country led the way in Spain’s industrialization. Basque nationalists long resented an influx of job seekers from poorer regions, who insisted on speaking Castilian. Language thus served as the foundation of local defiance, and most nationalists still make a point of speaking Euskera. Fluency in what was long considered a peasant tongue establishes separatist credibility. “He speaks with a Spanish accent,” I heard one colleague say disparagingly about another who had spent long years in exile, as though questioning his nationalism. By elevating Euskera to the vernacular of parliament, universities, and street signs, the Basque Country created a new indigenous elite that had an edge over those arriving from other parts of Spain seeking a crumb of the Basque Miracle.

While Basques grumble that one-tenth of their tax money goes to the central government, they are proud of what they have accomplished with the 90 percent that remains at home. Local pockets paid to scour the soot from facades in Bilbao. Here lies the key to pacification. People are sufficiently well off to go out and pack bars on Tuesday nights, paying 20 euros for baby eels and Rioja, far from the starchy meals of despair that mark rebellions elsewhere. The people who will be future teachers and politicians are growing up secure in their identity. Spain cleverly addressed whining by establishing autonomy in regions throughout the nation, letting locals run their own affairs. Now the Basques have only themselves to blame if they lack jobs. Nationalist pride has swollen such that migrants from the rest of Spain complain of second-class treatment. They are called lazy, or worse.

“I feel a little bit like a Jew in Nazi Germany,” says Oscar Rodriguez, a member of the regional parliament from the town of Mondragon, a stronghold of ETA. He represents the Socialist Party that is hated by radical Basque nationalists. Moreover, his family originated from a poor area bordering Portugal, something he says provokes double chauvinism. “My family came from outside to make this area better, and I grew up in Mondragon,” he continues. “That doesn’t mean that I am any less Basque. But people insulted us in the street when I grew up. So I clung to others like myself. ETA is fanatical and is manipulating people to believe there is a war with Spain.”

Resentment toward Basques ripples back to Madrid, where one often hears a lack of sympathy about independence yearnings. The Basques have outperformed the other semi-autonomous regions, and many outsiders puzzle why that isn’t enough. The savvy Basque ability to attract EU funding and generate their own revenue has provoked jealousy by Castilian speakers, even though they benefit from Basque tax revenues. Yet while newcomers to the Basque Country might dislike the idea of enrolling their children in bilingual schools, they can seek jobs at local convention centers just as their grandparents did in ports and foundries.


Basque self-realization throbs in the vast and intimidating citadel that serves as the headquarters of the Basque Nationalist Party, which has dominated regional politics for much of the past three decades. Inaki Goikoetxeta, the elegantly dressed cosmopolitan who handles the foreign affairs portfolio, delights in squiring visitors for a tour of the resistance artifacts that line the marble halls, including a flag carried in the Spanish Civil War. Goikoetxeta uses it as a prop to reflect on his people’s freedom. Basques enjoy more cultural and political liberty today than they have for centuries, which has undermined the cause of self-determination, he observes. “The society has been normalized to some extent. People don’t live with anguish like before. They can freely study Euskera. We have a real quality of life now. We have an important productivity; the state takes care of its people. We have a potent social welfare system. Because of that, ETA has lost the mythic hold on the youth and there has been a general drop in interest in politics.”

The spectacular rebirth of Bilbao, he adds, is more than cosmetic. It embodies proof that the Basques can achieve remarkable success by themselves. “The seeds of ETA have been reduced because of this feeling of well being,” continues Goikoetxeta. “To have power over roads, education … has produced a sense of control over lives. When you were here in 1985, it was a time of death, strikes, terrorism, and joblessness. People aren’t depressed any more.”

Euskobarometro would agree. This sociological survey by the University of the Basque Country has been measuring local public sentiment since 1978. Last year, it found that 64 percent of respondents “totally rejected” ETA, nearly triple the 23 percent recorded in 1981. Meanwhile, the number of Basques who deemed their personal situation “good” soared from 13 percent in 1993 to 56 percent last year. That’s roughly the same level of satisfaction seen in American polls. Autonomy gained in popularity, too. Not a single Basque surveyed endorsed it as a negotiated political solution in 1981. By 2005, some 45 percent gave their approval. The vast majority of the balance preferred “self-determination,” which in this case means full sovereignty. The man who oversees Euskobarometro, Francisco Ilera, has a similar take as the Basque Nationalist politician. “ETA and its arguments proceed from a very traditional and fundamentalist vision of Basque identity. Its quarrels and strategies gradually became isolated by the cultural, economic, and attitudinal modernization and globalization of the new generations, alongside the success of anti-terrorist policies and, of course, the extensive degree of self-government enjoyed in the Basque Country.” There you have it: Euskera, devolution, and affluence.


Guernica is a town of 15,000 that Basques consider their spiritual heartland. Basque leaders discussed the fueros under the town’s famed oak tree, which helps explain why Franco enlisted German planes to bomb the town in 1937, a martyrdom immortalized by Picasso’s eponymous painting. Guernica today remains a bastion of the abertzale, radical nationalists.

The tree itself is surprisingly small considering how large it looms in Basque emotions. Due to disease, the symbol has been replaced a couple of times since the Middle Ages. “Trees do not last as long as our aspirations,” notes one Basque journalist dryly. At the town hall, Mayor Jose Maria Forrono Extebarrieta, 57, favors the conservative look of flannel trousers and tweed jacket typical of his generation. His parents were jailed for speaking Euskera, and he entered politics to avenge this and other injustices. Without Madrid’s boot on their throats, Extebarrieta sees more engagement with consumerism. “The young have a culture of satisfaction and are less interested in politics,” he says, with a sidelong glance at his assistant who is busily checking messages on his cell phone. Extebarrieta continues once he is sure he has everyone’s attention.

“They did not live when we did and did not march in demonstrations against the dictatorship. They have everything done for them politically. In the early years of autonomy, people were more committed to the Basque Country. Now, young people are more interested in buying a car.”

At a smoky bar with blood-red walls popular with separatists called Aterpe (Refuge), the middle-aged bartender offers free drinks when the talk turns to self-determination, uttering expletives about Madrid. The table of 18-year-olds, sporting piercings and iPhones, meet the profile of those who traditionally donned ETA balaclavas—middle-class college kids from independence-minded families who experienced repression under Franco. Yet the youths uniformly deplore ETA’s killings. While recounting stories of police harassment, these teens seem more concerned with liberating themselves from unemployment than Spanish rule.

“Violence is repulsive,” offers an earnest pre-med student, Iker Miret Ataikalleude, who confesses he doesn’t want to jeopardize his career by getting mixed up with politics. “I want the right to decide what sort of government we have, but killing people is not the appropriate way to go about it. You can’t be doing what people did 30 years ago.”The girl sitting beside him, Ane Gartzia Rivero, jangles her silver earrings in agreement. “What does one achieve by killing? A bad image.”

Arriving in the bar is a lawyer in his 40s who moves in extremist circles. He’s reeling from the shock that an acquaintance had just been detained for being an alleged ETA militant. Another friend had been nabbed the week before, and the lawyer mused that the old guard had run out of recruits to replace them. “Things have changed for good,” he says.


Prevalent thinking in counterterrorism circles is that a movement will die from implosion, decapitation, and force. Yet policy makers should consider the pocketbook and psychology, too. What does everyone want? Territory, dignity, freedom to be themselves, a job, and prosperity. Nations that truly want to quell restive spirits have to accept diversity and stop forcing assimilation. And it does help to bribe folks into passivism. Full employment and a full belly can go a long way toward defusing discontent.

Attacking the very core of identity—language, land, religion, customs, spirituality, ancestry, heritage—creates particularly potent grievances. Religion emits a primal force, as we have seen see in Northern Ireland, Dagestan, and the Middle East.

Linguistic heritage, too, has been central to separatist grievances all over the planet. We have seen it in Bangladesh, among Tamils in Sri Lanka and Berbers in Algeria. Upon dismantling apartheid, South Africa declared 11 official languages to placate all groups. Elevating the indigenous language is not just symbolic. By allowing Basques to make the language preeminent, Madrid helped nurture a home-grown elite.

Ethnic conflicts tend to be especially protracted because the animosity goes back so far. Chechens relive old hurts each time they strap on suicide vests. They summon up Josef Stalin’s deportation of the entire population in 1944 as though it happened yesterday. Kashmiri bombers hark back to the 1947 partition of British India. Older Basques refer to Franco’s misdeeds, though the repression ended three decades ago. This resentment passes down from generation to generation like folktales, and collective rage mutates into separatism if not addressed.

Human nature softens with concessions; any divorce lawyer will tell you that. Rebels in Aceh, Indonesia, stopped fighting with a peace agreement that allowed 70 percent of income from local resources to remain in the province. In Iraq, Kurdistan is soothed now that it has achieved virtual home rule and kept its oil wealth. The Miskito uprising withered when the Nicaraguan government granted them autonomy in 1987. Violence continues to flare in India’s Tripura and Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hills because of the lack of implementation of peace accords that would have addressed land grievances and demands for greater local power. Abkhazia calmed down after achieving de facto independence from Georgia in the early 1990s, but hostilities continue amid uncertainty over its status. Chechnya has been largely pacified under Moscow’s two-pronged strategy of massive subsidies and de facto autonomy, which allows a new Islamic elite to impose Sharia law.

It’s unrealistic to prescribe a one-size-fits-all formula across the globe. Each region has its peculiar characteristics. Minority self-governance within a larger state won’t work when secessionist demands are inflexible. Still, the principle of greater devolution rarely fails. Create a perception of gain and guarantee a better standard of living, or rancor will deepen. Autonomy versus outright independence has the added advantage of maintaining the federal status quo. It’s face-saving for all. Taxes are still collected, and the national unit survives intact.

For sure, resentment in less favored regions will occur if the periphery thrives economically. Moscow has seen demonstrations by Slavic Russians, jealous of the money poured into Chechnya’s reconstruction. The rest of Iraq envies Kurdistan’s oil wealth. And no central state wants to forgo territorial control. Yet sometimes compromises are the only way to end conflict, which in the long run is expensive and deadly. Western democracies can do no better than to understand that such home-grown compromises are the best path to peace and prosperity.

*****Judith Matloff teaches conflict reporting at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism


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