After six and a half years imprisoned, Basque separatist leader Arnaldo Otegi was released on March 1. His penitentiary discharge comes at a time when Spain is facing a political stalemate following December’s general elections. So far, no compromise has been reached between elected Spanish political parties in securing a stable coalition government.
Otegi’s freedom raised sizeable alarm among Spain’s political class in dealing with regional separatism. He symbolises the charismatic political face of the Basque secessionist movement.
A former militant of the Basque armed separatist group ETA (Basque Homeland and Freedom), Otegi turned to politics throughout the nineties as the frontrunner for the Basque patriotic-leftist party Batasuna (Unity).
In 2003, Spain’s judiciary banned Batasuna due to established financial and political links with ETA. Considered as a terrorist organisation, ETA had waged a 50-year campaign of violence against the Spanish government to create an independent Basque state. In 2011, ETA declared a complete end to its armed activities after killing more than 800 people.
In October 2009, Otegi was arrested and accused for reorganising Batasuna under ETA’s support network. Spanish politicians still regard Otegi as a ‘terrorist’ for providing a political voice and glorifying terrorism on ETA’s behalf. Basque nationalists however admire Otegi as the ‘Basque Nelson Mandela’, because he transformed Basque separatism from armed hostility to peaceful resolution in ending Spain’sETA conflict.
Basque nationalists admire Arnaldo Otegi as the ‘Basque Nelson Mandela’
As a prominent leader of the Ezkerra Abertzale (Patriotic Left Coalition), Otegi continues to exert political momentum within the Basque secessionist movement, advocating legitimacy to national self-determination through democratic separation from Spain.
His release from Logroño prison has rejuvenated the Basque secessionist vision of the national enemy, the Spanish State.
This suggests a deep-rooted xenophobic feeling, shared between ethno-nationalist Basques, where Spanish nationalism has both denied and blocked the socio-political rights of northern Spain’s Basque minority. Through Otegi’s prisoner experience, the Basque secessionist movement sets to renew its nationalist political demand for the freedom of Basque political prisoners from Spanish and French jails.
A sensitive issue among Basque people to determine peace after the Spain-ETA conflict, relatives of over 700 former ETA militants continue to demand the release of imprisoned Basque separatists charged with terrorism. Otegi quickly claimed to his nationalist supporters that Spain’s incarceration policy of Basque political prisoners continues to delay a possible path to peace between Spain and the Basque society.
Once freed, Otegi declared: “Some say there are no political prisoners in the Spanish State. But there would not be so many media here today if it wasn’t for the fact that today a political prisoner has left a Spanish jail.”
The Spanish society meanwhile continues to express deep revulsion against calls in remembrance of victims killed and injured by ETA. The government likewise dismisses any prospects for peace, unless ETA surrenders its remaining weapons and disbands completely.
Otegi’s pro-independence push, rejuvenating Basque separatism, echoes with international relations expert Geoffrey Stern saying: “Secessionist movements come to serve as repositories of discontent and instruments for securing what their adherents conceive as their rights.”
Otegi is expected to defy Spain’s existing ban on his political parti-cipation in the forthcoming Basque regional elections. Addressing Basque nationalist supporters outside prison, Otegi declared that: “Sooner rather than later we will use the right to self-determination, and thus transform ourselves into a new state of Europe.”
Otegi’s revival of Basque separatism draws parallel lines to Spain’s other existing confrontation on its territorial integrity, Catalonia’s independence movement. The ever-growing Catalan question undoubtedly boosted Basque nationalists to peacefully reawaken their own separatist aspirations, whilst struggling to leave behind ETA’s bloody legacy for independence after 50 years of bombings and assassinations.
Otegi’s return to mainstream Basque politics will instead accelerate political motivation within the Basque secessionist movement, seeking to convince Basque electoral constituencies that a unilateral declaration of independence can be legitimately achievable through Catalonia’s envisioned separatist example.
The potential resurgence of both Otegi and the Basque secessionist movement under Batasuna’s successor coalition party Sortu (Create), will prove to become a rising challenge to Spain’s loyalist Basque Nationalist Party (PNV). The PNV currently leads the Basque regional government, and has always stuck to a moderately autonomous position than outright independence.
As Otegi seeks to run for Basque regional leadership, the Basque secessionist movement is set to strengthen its democratic separatist appeal to the socio-economic interests of the middleand lower class strata in the Basque region.
The anti-austerity rise of Pablo Iglesias’s Podemos in mainstream Spanish politics, coupled with the anti-capitalist emergence of the Popular Candidacy Party (CUP) in Catalonia, have altogether inspired the Basque secessionist movement to revive Basque nationalism equally as the alternative anti-establishment, and separatist pressure bloc in Spain’s national affairs.
Samuel Bezzina is reading an MLitt in Terrorism Studies at St Andrews University, Scotland.
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