The Democracy Brought Peace to Euskadi
By Lorin Sarkisian / Roni Alasor in Euskadi / Basque Country in North Spain. - “Violence and terror” were the first words coming in mind, whenever Europeans heard about Euskadi Country or the Basque people. Most Western media never go deep in analyzing the consequences of many hundred years of colonisation policies, fascist dictatorship and oppression in the heart of Europe. The label “terrorist” is easily given to anyone who dares to defend his ethnical identity and cultural rights – from the Basque and Irish people in Europe to the Kurds in the Middle East.
Bilbo and Donostia (San Sebastian)
Violence, terror, prohibition of the Basque language, oppression of the Basque culture and identity were still a painful reality in the Basque Country in Spain some decades ago. But today calmness, peace, democracy and dynamic economy and culture flourish in the Euskadi part of Spain. The local autonomy brought democracy to Basque people and pulled them ahead of the rest of Spain.
After different failed negotiations between the Spanish government and the armed group ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or "Basque Homeland and Freedom"), the peace has been now officially established in Euskadi, since October 2011 when ETA unilaterally announced a "definitive cessation of its armed activity". The organisation was created in 1959 as paramilitary group with the goal of gaining independence for the United Basque Country.
Francisco Franco (right hand) with Adolf H. / 8 April 2012 in Iruna during a demonstration
The majority of Basque people supported ETA during the fascist regime of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (1892 – 1975). But after the establishment of the Basque local autonomy in 1979 progressively many people condemned the use of violence and insisted for political dialogue and use of democratic means for achieving the political aims. Today opinion polls show increased support for the Basque patriotic parties after the definitive cessation of ETA’s armed activity.
However, the European political observers and experts on Basque issue are concerned about eventual return of ETA and Basque violence, if Spanish nationalists and right wing movements try to bring back Franco’s spirit in Spain.
Political prisoners in Spain
There are still more than 650 Basque political prisoners kept in Spanish and French prisons for alleged relations with ETA. Their families gather every week in the biggest Basque city Bilbao to ask for their liberation. For many Basque people still remains the question why ETA supporters who were not involved in terrorist actions are still detained, while the organisation does not act anymore.
This and other questions concerning the statute of the disputed Basque territories, which are still not included in the Autonomous Region, keep Basque people highly politicized, actively involved in the actuality of their region and the world and ready to defend their rights for the well-being of the future Basque generations.
Basque solidarity with oppressed ethnical minorities
Basque democratic institutions and NGOs have traditionally good relations with different oppressed ethnical minorities all over the world, including the Irish, Scottish, Wales, secular Palestinians movements, peoples in America Latina, Laponian people (Sami), Flemish people and Kurds from the four parts of Kurdistan, as well as with the Kurdish community in Europe.
The Basque parliament, established in 1980, was one of the first parliaments in the world which created a friendship contact group and visited the Parliament of Kurdistan Region (Iraq). Basque Country and Kurdistan Region developed common humanitarian projects in many areas, including education, health and culture. Kurdish representatives often participate in Basque festivals, fairs and cultural events. Edibe Sahin, mayor of Dersim (North Kurdistan in Turkey) is expected soon to participate in commemoration events in Basque Country related to the Kurdish massacre in Dersim in 1938 and the Basque massacre in Gernika in 1937. Today the Kurdish Regional Government has good relation with Basque Country, but also with the central Spanish government in Madrid.
Strong National Identity, Iruna 8 April 2012
On Sunday, 8 of April, the Eastern feast day for Christian Catholics, we are in Irunea (Pamplona in Spanish) - a Basque city in the province of Nafarroa in North Spain, where should be located the Basque capital, if there was a united Basque Country. Few people are in the Church for the Religious Mass. But the streets are full of men and women from all ages, whole families and groups of friends waving flags and marching proudly. While the minority celebrates Eastern in the church, the majority enjoys the Basque National Day and reaffirms the demands for independence and unity of Basque land. The celebration of the Basque National Day in Nafarroa, which is still not part of the official Basque autonomy, was organised by several Basque independent organisations. According the organisers, more than 30.000 people demonstrated for independent and united Basque country.
Like the Kurds, Basque people who are one of Europe’s oldest indigenous population, were divided by foreign powers. Today Euscal Herria or the Basque Country, covering a surface area of over 20,000 km² and a total population of around 3 million inhabitants, is composed by two parts, divided between Spain and France: Hegoalde (the South), comprising the Autonomous Community of the Basque country and the Foral Community of Nafarroa in Spain - and Iparralde (the North), covering the provinces in France.
The Basque Country in Spain has administrative and fiscal autonomy and is considered as one of the wealthiest regions in Spain and in Europe. On the other side of the border, in France the power is concentrated in Paris, in the central French Government and the Basque region is one of the poorest in the country.
As the demonstration in Irunea shows, the dream for unity and independence is still alive among the Basque population in North Spain, even if part of the region enjoys autonomous statute since 1979. Unlike the time of the Spanish dictator Franco, when Basque identity and cultural rights were oppressed, (like more than 35 million Kurds still suffer in 21st century), today parents send freely their children to Basque schools, and media are in Basque language.
The strong patriotic nationalism among the population allowed Basque people to revitalize their language after many years of prohibition to speak Basque in Franco’s Spain. The first clandestine schools teaching in Basque language appeared in the 1950s, followed by clandestine language courses for adults. The language was the main identity tenant, since the phrase “I am Basque” was expressed with the word “Euskaldun”, which means a person who is speaking Basque. This language-based national identity allowed many worker immigrants from other parts of Spain to integrate smoothly in the Basque society - once they learned Basque language, they were considered as Basque people.
Unfortunately, it will take time until the negative consequences of the Spanish assimilation policies will be overcame and the cultural damages will be repaired. Today only about 30 % of the population in Basque Autonomous Region speak Basque language and it will be the task of the new generations to keep the language alive in the future.
The current Basque government has been formed by the Socialists in coalition with the Spanish centre-right Popular Party, two parties which are traditional enemies in other parts of Spain and Europe. However, in the Basque case the traditional right-left cleavages have been often replaced by national unity and strong feeling for “Basqueness” both among the right and the left supporters, pro-spanish and pro-basque.
But Spain still doesn't give full chance to the Basque democracy to function properly. Igor Zulaika from the Abertzale Left explains the situation in Basque Country after the last elections: "On the last parliamentary elections in 2009 the Basque left represented by the D3M (a citizen’s candidature created to respond the banning of parties) wasn’t allowed to run for elections. The promoters of this candidature have been prosecuted and will be taken to trial with requests of nine years imprisonment. However, Basque citizens decided to show their support for D3M and over 100.000 people voted with ballots deemed void. As a result the legally elected parliament had for the first time ever a pro-Spanish majority, even if the popular will said otherwise. Pro-Basque parties had the majority of votes but the banning of D3M changed the sharing of elected representatives".
The legal banning of the Basque political party, as well as the strong measures against Basque political prisoners, has just reinforced the Basque patriotic movement. Urtzi Urrutikoetxea, Basque journalist, analyzes the current developments in the Basque society:"Some recent events show that the desire for independence is growing: the seemingly end of the armed struggle supposes that there should be no barrier to discuss freely about absolutely everything ("without terrorism we can talk about everything", has been said by years by most political parties), including the right of the Basques to decide how and if they want to be in Spain. The Scottish referendum in 2014 shows at the same time that the topic is no taboo for real democracies. The Spanish approach to the situation, with multiple examples like keeping prisoners far away, make more people to oppose that strategy. Former steps, like the Constitutional Court's declaring illegal some of the articles of the Catalan Autonomy (voted by the majority of the citizens), had a great impact in many people thinking a friendship relation with Spain was possible. They understood there was only one way to be in Spain, that no other nations would be accepted (as Scotland or Wales are naturally accepted in the UK), and everyone with a different has been somehow forced to support independence, which has meant a great grow for independence aspiration in Catalonia, which also has an effect in the Basque Country".
Regarding the next parliamentary elections in 2013, Urtzi Urrutikoetxea expects Basque leftists and nationalists to have the majority of seats: “Most opinion polls show that in the next election both leftist pro-independence and centre-right Basque nationalists will be the first and second parties (or vice versa), which would mean that pro-Spanish parties, now ruling the Autonomy, will fall to the third and forth positions, and probably get only about one third of the seats in parliament. It means that practically two third of the seats might be for Basque parties supporting the right of self-determination". Spain's deep economical crisis has also to be taken into account when one analyzes the modern Basque society. The Spanish economic model, which is mainly based on right policies, is strongly contested in the Basque Country, where a more leftist economic policy, not attached to house building but to industry, has proved to work better.
Football and pintxos
Apart the mother tongue and the political belonging, other important elements of the Basque identity are the culture and the folklore, the traditions and the common past. In modern times, the football and the art of cooking are sources of Basque national pride.
Basque people joke with tourists visiting their country that foreigners may not like or may criticize many things in Basque land, but they can never say anything bad about the culinary. The Basque art of cooking is famous, especially in touristic cities like Donostia (San Sebastian), where the "pintxos" bars are full of local people and tourists. The popular "pintxos" are bite-sized rounds of toast topped with everything you can imagine, from fish and meat to vegetables and sauces. A large variety of pintxos is usually served on trays at the bar and people eat them before or after dinner with small glasses of wine or beer.
The pintxos culture is also an important way of “socializing”. Basque people enjoy meeting in bars, talking, eating pintxos and drinking, all in a very peaceful and relaxed atmosphere. The number of thrown paper napkins under the chairs of the bar is proving the quality of the pintxos in the place and attracts new comers.
The pintxos bars are usually located in the old part of the big cities. The old neighbourhoods in the biggest Basque cities in the Spanish part – Bilbao, Donostia (San Sebastian), Gasteiz (Victoria) and Irunea (Pamplona) - are with many pedestrian streets, very clean and friendly. At the same time, the cities and the whole region have developed infrastructure and very good roads, which make the region ideal for exploring as well as by car.
Beautiful and various landscape
The short travelling distances in the country give possibility for quick change of the landscape – beautiful sea coasts, high mountain tops, calm villages and dynamic cities are at just one hour distance from each other.
Basque Country is highly industrialised, but it has also preserved its agrarian lifestyle. Rich villages with big stone houses, broad streets, playgrounds and schools show the attachment of the Basque population to its land and the wish to preserve it for the future generations.
But this developed attachment to the local place and strong regional identity of Basque people goes hand in hand with their openness to the global world, general good knowledge and concern about actual problems in other countries and ethnic groups. It is precisely this personality of the Basque people, their active position, awareness and progressive thinking, which give face and character to the Basque Country. Beyond the natural resources or the beautiful landscape in this land, the people are what one will remember after visiting Basque Country: for their pride, for their courage to defend and to preserve their identity and for their inexhaustible willpower to build, to create and to continue to exist with honour.