The Big Question: Why is an ETA leader on hunger strike, and can the Basque issue be solved?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this question now?

Pictures appeared this week of the skeletal figure of the notorious Eta hitman Iñaki de Juana Chaos, said to be near death after a three-month hunger strike. Chaos had served 20 years for killing 25 people, and is protesting at receiving an additional 12-year sentence for publishing threats of violence in a radical Basque newspaper. If he dies, Spain fears Eta will hail him as a martyr. If he's freed, or his prison conditions lightened, the socialist government risks accusations of caving in to terrorism. The nation is bitterly divided over whole affair.

Did this blow up out of nowhere?

No. It is the most acute manifestation of a crisis that goes back decades, and has now thrown José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's government seriously off course. Zapatero controversially launched a peace process after the armed Basque separatists called a truce last March. Throughout last year the government tried to get Eta to show it was serious about abandoning arms, and made no concessions to the organisation's demands.

Eta grumbled before Christmas that Zapatero could at least offer some goodwill gesture. Then on 30 December, an Eta bomb devastated a multistory carpark at Madrid airport, killed two Ecuadoreans, and shattered the ceasefire.

The main conservative opposition People's Party launched a sustained and withering assault upon the government for even daring to talk to terrorists. The PP wants Mr Zapatero to join forces with them and form a cross-party anti-terrorist alliance to crush armed Basque separatists by force. The PP says the airport bombing, and other small-scale acts of violence, show that Eta has no intention of laying down arms, and used the nine-month truce only as a breathing space to reorganise and re-arm.

Surely, Zapatero should just admit he got it wrong?

It's not clear he did get it wrong. Surveys show most Spaniards favour trying to pursue the peace process. For months Basque terrorism dropped from being the Spaniards' main worry, and a feeling of optimism swept the nation that the Basque conflict might at last eventually be solved. The problem is that the PP represent a large section of opinion who believe Eta is a bunch of criminal gangsters with whom no democratic government should have any truck.

But the hard line hasn't worked either. Spaniards are sick of politicians telling them every now and then that Eta is on the verge of surrender and/or defeat. Every time police round up some top leaders, or dismantle a clandestine cell, they crow that victory against terrorism is imminent. Then another atrocity happens, and politicians concede that Eta "is weakened but still operative", and demand stiffer anti-terrorist measures.

Why not just ride out the criticism and keep to the policy of trying to make peace?

The problem is that the government doesn't have a full parliamentary majority, but relies on support from small nationalist or regionalist parties. Most of these support the peace process, but that doesn't provide a solid foundation for a policy that blew up in Zapatero's face. Even he recognises that there'll be no progress on peace in the immediate future.

Furthermore, the PP's aggressive tactics are taking up much of the political space, poisoning public debate to a degree unprecedented in recent years. Mr Zapatero has to spend all his time defending a policy that has failed in the short term, and he has no opportunity to seize the initiative on other fronts. It's wearing down his credibility with the voters.

Iñaki de Juana Chaos has made matters worse by endorsing the government's peace initiative. "I am completely in agreement with the democratic process of dialogue and negotiation," the hunger striker said this week. This gives credence to the opposition's belief that peace talks only play into the terrorists' hands.

Does Eta seriously want to make peace?

Difficult to say. Iñaki de Juana Chaos belongs to Eta's old guard, many of whom have concluded that armed action is getting them nowhere in achieving an independent homeland. Other grizzled hitmen, like Josu Ternera, whom the government was indirectly contacting, think the same.

But Eta's high command is said to have passed into the hands of younger, more radical leaders who forced the breaking of the ceasefire. De Juana Chaos apparently launched his hunger strike without support from these young hardliners, which might leave him isolated within the organisation. It looks as though there's a generational struggle going on within Eta's power structure.

What about Eta's sympathisers?

Eta's political wing, Batasuna, is desperate to resume the peace process, and insists that December's bombing was not intended to cause deaths. Their leader, Arnaldo Otegi, the government's chief interlocutor during the truce, yesterday downsized separatists' demands to "an autonomous region of Navarra and the Basque country within the Spanish state", in attempt to get talks back on course. This sounds like a big climbdown from an independent homeland that includes a chunk of France. But no one knows how much support Otegi, the former hitman turned democratic politician, still enjoys among his erstwhile Eta comrades.

Surely politicians realise that talks offer the only chance of solving the conflict?

A large section of the public don't agree. They insist that Eta's demands are unrealisable within a democratic Spain, and that if further concessions are made to Basque autonomy - the region has perhaps the greatest degree of home rule in Europe - the country will fly apart.

Conservatives refuse on principle to talk to terrorists, saying that would betray the hundreds of victims, and insist that police action combined with social revulsion will eventually defeat the organisation. It's part of Spanish political life: the country has a long history in which opponents regard each other as enemies to be defeated, rather than antagonists to be won round.

Can either side learn from the IRA?

Only when it suits them. Gerry Adams and various priests involved in the Irish talks have spent years travelling to and from the Basque country trying to help the parties to get round the table. And Tony Blair offered Mr Zapatero his encouragement and experience in brokering the Irish deal. Spaniards have yet to learn how long and frustrating the process can be, and that serious reverses can be overcome. The main lesson is that both sides must want peace. It'll be a while before Spain gets to that point.

Can a peace process eventually solve the Basque conflict?

Yes...

* Because every other alternative has been tried and failed

* Because the government, moderate nationalists and majority public opinion want to end the conflict through talks

* Because Eta is weakened organisationally and isolated socially

No...

* Because an important section of the right won't consider talks

* Because no one outside Eta's entourage wants a Basque homeland independent from Spain

* Because Eta, or part of it, still seems committed to violence

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