Protests against ETA

Protests against ETA

Mass protests against ETA

During the 1990s, the Spaniards and most Basques became increasingly resentful of ETA’s recurring kidnappings and assassinations. Following the assassination in the summer of 1997 of a Basque politician from the Conservative People’s Party (PP) who came to power in Madrid last year, the largest protest demonstrations to date against ETA were held, even in Basque cities.

The new Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, himself the subject of an ETA assassination attempt in 1995, wanted to strike harder at the separatists, and 23 leading members of HB were arrested. They were sentenced in December 1997 to prison for “collaborating with terrorists”. What they were mainly accused of was spreading a video recording in which masked and armed ETA activists shouted slogans.

At the same time, however, the government gestured against the separatists and moved 15 imprisoned ETA members to institutions closer to the Basque Country. One demand that ETA often made was that all about 500 “political prisoners” be transferred to prisons in the Basque Country.

New bombings and shootings still took place until June 1998. In July, a Spanish investigating judge forced the radical Basque newspaper Egin and a radio station to close, and police arrested some of the newspaper’s employees.

The first ceasefire

In early 1998, the moderate Basque nationalist party PNV had begun secret talks with a new generation of leaders within HB to end the violence. In September, ETA surprisingly announced that the movement had decided to suspend the armed actions indefinitely. It was considered that there were various reasons behind ETA’s decision:

  • According to softwareleverage, ETA had suffered setbacks following new police interventions in both Spain and France, while Batasuna’s leaders were also imprisoned. ETA needed time to build its strength and arsenal.
  • The ongoing peace process in Northern Ireland created strong pressure on ETA and Batasuna to try something similar.
  • The popular protests against the violence, including in the Basque Country, had become so widespread that ETA / Batasuna saw a need to increase its support ahead of the Basque regional elections in October.

The election in the Basque Country in 1998 was the first without violence and harassment, which meant that turnout was 10 percentage points higher than in the previous election. Batasuna, which participated in a new electoral coalition called the  Basque People  (Euskal Herritarrok, EH), increased its share of the vote from 16 to 18 percent. PNV was able to form a new regional government, now with the support of the parliament of EH.

During the ceasefire, a dialogue was launched between ETA and the Spanish Government. Secret talks were held in Switzerland, and it was said that about 100 ETA activists would be transferred to prisons in or near the Basque Country and about 300 separatists in exile would be allowed to return to Spain. However, the government refused to release any ETA prisoners, but the Spanish Constitutional Court overturned the sentences against the HB members who had been imprisoned a year earlier. But in parallel with the peace efforts, the hunt for ETA activists continued.

The violence is coming back

In November 1999, ETA announced, without warning, that the ceasefire would end, and in January 2000, the first assassination took place. The victim was a senior Spanish officer who was killed in Madrid by an explosive device in a car. ETA declared that the struggle had resumed because the Spanish government did not want to negotiate the political demands of the separatists. Madrid has always refused to discuss ETA’s demands for a Basque state.

When a Basque socialist politician was killed in February 2001, the nationalist party PNV decided to suspend all cooperation with Euskal Herritarrok, and this party subsequently boycotted parliament. At the same time, the PNV needed to distance itself from the government in Madrid and therefore expressed criticism of how it had handled the peace talks and the fight against terrorism. PNV accused the government of lacking plans for a political solution to the Basque question.

At the time of the Basque regional elections in May 2001, some 30 people had been killed in various terrorist attacks. On the streets of Basque cities, there was almost daily violence as young people – often frustrated unemployed who regarded ETA activists as heroes and martyrs – marched in demonstrations and threw stones and firebombs.

Various symbols of the Spanish state were destroyed and shops were looted. For traders and other businessmen, this became an additional burden in addition to the “revolutionary tax” that many of them are forced to pay to ETA through pure blackmail. The Basque police force, Ertzaintza, which was formed in the 1980s as part of its autonomy, was accused of failing to intervene effectively against street violence.

Protests against ETA