Catalans to raise nationalist banner at the Olympics: The Games bring a golden opportunity to pursue an old struggle, writes Elizabeth Nash

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THE NATIONALIST forces of Catalonia, for centuries a scourge to the kingdom of Spain, are gathering strength to extract the maximum political advantage from the Olympic Games which open in Barcelona on 25 July. Barcelona, they point out, is a Catalan city. And with some 3,500 million television viewers, there will never be a better opportunity to bring to the world's attention their demands for recognition as a free nation.

One campaign, 'Freedom for Catalonia', has even given itself an English name to maximise its international appeal. But, unlike their Basque counterparts, the Catalan nationalists' methods are overwhelmingly non-violent. 'Our aim is to take advantage of the Barcelona games to show the existence of Catalonia and to let people know that Catalonia is a nation without its own state. Our campaign is not against the games,' said Marc Puig, a spokesman for Accio Olimpica, a Catalan cultural organisation.

He wants to see every visitor to the games waving the red and yellow striped Catalan flag and a placard saying 'Freedom for Catalonia', not aggressively, but 'with a festive air and with a smile on their lips'. This is not disruptive, he says, but a 'positive channelling of nationalist sentiment'. Despite such reassurances, the authorities are nervous.

They do not want a repetition of an orchestrated boycott when Catalan nationalists booed and whistled King Juan Carlos as he inaugurated Barcelona's Olympic stadium at Montjuic in September 1989, or of the opening of the Expo '92 in Seville in April this year when the King's inaugural address was overshadowed by the police opening fire on demonstrators. Two were shot and wounded.

Since April, a number of agreements have been reached between Barcelona's Socialist mayor Pasqual Maragall, who heads the city's Olympic Organising Committee, Catalonia's conservative nationalist president Jordi Pujol, the International Olympic Committee headed by Juan Samaranch and the Socialist government in Madrid, to measures that 'catalanise' the games. These include flying the Catalan flag in the official as well as the 'folkloric' part of the games, the use of Catalan as a fourth official language (in addition to English, French and Spanish) and the singing of the Catalan national anthem, Els Segadors (The Reapers), as well as that of Spain. Els Segadors commemorates a battle in 1640 when 500 reapers entered Barcelona, slaughtered the king of Spain's mercenaries with their sickles and held the city for four days.

A Socialist deputy to the Catalan parliament, Javier Soto, said the 'catalanisation' measures had been planned all along, and denied emphatically that they were concessions to ward off potential trouble. But Tomeu Martin, a spokesman for the nationalist campaign Crida a la Soldaritat (Appeal for Solidarity) says 'it would have been incredible to imagine that we could have made these important advances without the popular mobilisation that has taken place'.

The organisers' receptivity to Catalan demands quickened after elections to the region's parliament on 15 March showed an upsurge in the nationalist vote. For the first time, Mr Pujol's Convergenca i Unio party won an absolute majority - 70 seats out of 135. The party stands for greater autonomy for Catalonia within the Spanish state. Esquerra Republicana (Republican Left), which wants the separation of Catalonia from Spain, increased its number of seats from three to 11, making it the third strongest party in the parliament after the Socialists' 40 seats.

For many campaigners, the gains do not go far enough. 'We don't want the King to attend the games,' said Tomeu Martin. 'We want the procession of the Olympic teams to follow the order of the Catalan alphabet, not the French, as is the case, and we want the Catalan flag to be raised whenever a Catalan athlete wins.' La Crida plans energetic propaganda activities throughout the games, like that of a young man who jumped on the podium at the Catalan port of Empuries waving a Freedom for Catalonia banner on 13 June when the Olympic torch was welcomed ashore after its voyage from Greece. Will the authorities disapprove? 'Probably,' he replied.

Much depends on the attitude of the police. Catalonia, along with the Basque country and Galicia, enjoys more autonomy than Spain's 14 other regions, but Madrid insists on controlling the crucial areas of taxation and the security forces. 'Control of security is always in the hands of the Spaniards,' says Marc Puig. 'Spanish policemen in Catalonia come from Spain. So when there's a Catalan demonstration, the police get very nervous. They have clear orders not to interfere, but there are conflicts.' La Crida plan a campaign against the deployment of police.

A leader of Esquerra, Albert Beltran, says most Catalans want a negotiated independence from Spain. 'In March, after the elections, a survey showed that two out of three Catalans favoured independence for Catalonia,' he said. 'Our aim is for all the visitors to the Olympics and all the television viewers to become aware of our conflict with Spain and the support of the majority of Catalans for independence.'

But he opposes armed action, such as that of the Basque separatist organisation ETA, or the small Catalan equivalent, Terra Lliure (Free Land). 'The armed struggle has no future,' Mr Beltran said.

(Photograph omitted)