Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Chronicle Of A Peace Process....Slow Progress Is Not No Progress

I haven’t written much on this topic recently, as much of the movement that is taking place is subterranean and therefore not so easy to track. However, the process continues to inch forward as there are signs that some of the obstacles to progress are slowly being removed.

The main sticking point continues to be the means by which ETA’s political wing, Batasuna, regains its status as a legal political party. Not only is there unwillingness on the part of Batasuna to do things the way in which the government insists they should, there is also pressure for some kind of concession from the government in return for Batasuna taking this step. Publicly, the government is adamant that no concessions will be made until Batasuna shows that it is prepared to definitively reject violence and support for ETA. In turn, the leadership of Batasuna wants reassurance that the judicial pressure on them will be completely lifted if they take these steps, and also some guarantees on the “mesa de partidos”, the conference of political parties in the Basque Country that will determine any political reforms to be made as part of the process. The government has also hinted that some concessions on the issue of ETA prisoners could be made once Batasuna is legal again, possibly ending the policy of dispersion of these prisoners around the country. In the meantime, the government’s dialogue with ETA that was supposed to accompany progress on the political front has not yet officially begun.

The situation was made more complicated recently by a hunger strike involving one of ETA’s prisoners, Iñaki de Juana Chaos. He declared the hunger strike as a protest against a judicial decision which owed far more to politics than it did to any even handed application of the law. De Juana has been kept in prison as a result of fresh charges brought following a political and media campaign against his proposed release for the offences that led to his original imprisonment. He has been charged with making terrorist threats because of some articles he wrote in Gara, a newspaper close to Batasuna.

Whether the decision to bring the charges is legally valid or not is almost irrelevant, he was not charged when the articles originally appeared and it is clear that the decision to present new charges was a political response to the furore created over his case. His hunger strike, which has now been called off, was accompanied by an increase in acts of street violence by activists in the Basque region; all of which threatened for a while the possibility of further political progress. Perhaps not too surprisingly, his decision to call off the hunger strike has been followed by a decision on the part of the state prosecutors to reduce the seriousness of the charges against him.

Meanwhile, the opposition Partido Popular (PP) maintains its position of all-out opposition to the process, and the battle has now reached the European Parliament as the PP have managed to persuade their European partners to join them in opposing a resolution supporting the policy of negotiation. At the same time they have made it clear that they will not feel bound to honour any political agreements reached as part of the process in the event of them returning to government. As if this was not enough, they have pledged to raise the issue in Parliament at every opportunity. Surprisingly, they didn’t manage to prevent a declaration by the Pope in favour of the government’s policy; it seems the Basque bishops have their own line of communication with the Vatican. Jose Maria Aznar’s former best friend, Tony Blair, has also annoyed the Spanish right by endorsing the peace process. For the moment, the Spanish government holds its nerve in the face of this opposition onslaught, whilst it does them no political damage then they will continue to do so.

Update 25th October: Just as you post on something the situation changes. ETA have been accused of being responsible for the theft of hundreds of pistols from a factory in France. It is still not proven that they are responsible, but the French police say they used some handcuffs that ETA members had stolen from French gendarmes a few months ago. Meanwhile, the European Parliament has voted narrowly to give its support to the peace process, it is largely a symbolic vote but at least denies the PP a propaganda victory.

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