Tired by Years of Separatist Strife, Many Basques Wary of New Independence Bid

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If the pollsters are right, his position is not uncommon among the Basques of Spain. As the secession crisis in Catalonia deepens, attention has turned to the northern Basque region — which, like Catalonia, has its own language, culture and long history of separatism — to see if the desire for independence proves contagious.

Until the 19th century, Spanish kings swore an oath to respect Basque autonomy underneath a tree here in Guernica. But the region’s self-government was dismantled in 1876, and so it remained (barring a brief period of autonomy during the Spanish Civil War) for more than a century.

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Luis Iriondo is one of the last survivors of the assault on Guernica.

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Patrick Kingsley/The New York Times

Even after its restoration, self-government was still not enough for some Basques — including a militant group, ETA, which killed more than 800 civilians, policemen and soldiers in a decades-long campaign for independence that formally ended this year.

But despite this tortured history, or perhaps because of it, the Catalan crisis does not appear to have markedly increased the zeal for Basque independence.

Many here sympathize with Catalan nationalists. But after a controversial Catalan independence referendum in early October, an opinion poll found that nearly 63 percent of Basques did not want to copy the Catalan approach to achieving independence, while only 22 percent were in favor. And while 44 percent hope for greater autonomy from Madrid, just 23 percent want their own independent country.

After over 40 years of separatist violence, many Basques want a timeout from the independence question, suggested Kirmen Uribe, an acclaimed Basque author who writes in Euskera, the Basque language.

“It’s like we’re different planets — Catalonia and the Basque Country — and we have different orbits,” Mr. Uribe said during an interview in San Sebastián, a coastal city famous for its food and shoreline. “The Basque orbit is longer, and the Catalan orbit is shorter. We need more time because we don’t want to break the Basque Country again.”

“It’s a question of timing — we don’t want independence right now,” Mr. Uribe added. “We’re more thinking about cleaning the wounds between us, between the Basque people.”

In Bilbao — the largest Basque city, and where tourism has boomed as separatist tensions have ebbed — the leader of the region’s largest nationalist party, Andoni Ortuzar, said there was no rush to achieve independence.

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Instead of fast-tracking a divisive referendum, Andoni Ortuzar, the leader of the Basque region’s largest nationalist party, wants to first establish a consensus on independence.

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Ander Gillenea/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Our way is our way, and we cannot change it because of the Catalan situation,” said Mr. Ortuzar, the president of the Basque Nationalist Party, or P.N.V., a conservative group that has led the Basque region for all but three years since the restoration of Basque self-government in 1979.

Instead of fast-tracking a divisive referendum, Mr. Ortuzar’s “way” is to first establish a consensus among Basque parties and institutions about the kind of autonomy they want. Then he wants to present this joint proposal to the central government in Madrid, before putting the negotiated settlement to the Basque population in a referendum.

Even then, he does not expect a referendum on outright independence.

Besides, the Basque region already has greater autonomy than Catalonia, particularly in financial affairs, Mr. Ortuzar said.

If the Catalan crisis has changed anything, it is in the corridors of power in Madrid, rather than Bilbao, Mr. Ortuzar reckoned. The Spanish government will have learned the lesson of failing to engage constructively with independence-minded regional governments, which might provide the Basque region “an opportunity” in years to come, he said.

“The Catalan situation is very grave,” he said. “But it has a good consequence: Madrid has seen the risk of closing the door. And I think that many people in Madrid have seen — even if they’re not saying it, they’re thinking it — that it is necessary to change the state model.”

But the more trenchant Basque nationalists have concluded precisely the opposite.

Madrid’s violent response to the Catalan referendum is a sign of how it will treat any effort to increase Basque autonomy, said Arnaldo Otegi, a leading figure within P.N.V.’s main nationalist rival, a far-left coalition known as Basque Country Unite, or E.H. Bildu.

The experience of Catalonia shows “there is no state to negotiate with,” said Mr. Otegi, who returned to politics last year after spending six years in prison for trying to revive a banned political party linked to ETA. “Catalonia has shown that it’s not possible to democratize the Spanish state,” he added.

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Madrid’s violent response to the Catalan referendum signals how it would treat any effort to increase Basque autonomy, said Arnaldo Otegi, a leading figure within a Basque far-left coalition.

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Ander Gillenea/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

This does not harbinger a return to separatist violence, which is now “out of the political equation” in the Basque region, Mr. Otegi said. “It’s not coming back. Forever.”

But it does mean that the Basque government should follow Catalonia’s example and hold a referendum before negotiating with Madrid, rather than the other way around, Mr. Otegi argued. He also expects “a reactivation” of peaceful interest in Basque nationalism, particularly among young people, he said. “Yes, it’s true there’s a fatigue after a long-term conflict — but something is changing in these past weeks.”

Analysts counter that Mr. Otegi says this more in hope than certainty. “There’s no piece of data that proves that’s happening,” said Ander Gutiérrez-Solana, a professor at the University of the Basque Country. “Not in the elections, not in the polls, not in the streets — there’s no big movement for independence.”

Tens of thousands of Basques rallied in Bilbao the day before the Catalan referendum, in solidarity with Catalonia, “but in my opinion it’s always the same people,” Mr. Gutiérrez-Solana said. “They’re not reaching new people.”

Grassroots activists nevertheless feel that something is stirring. Groups of young Basque nationalists traveled to Barcelona on the day of the referendum to learn from separatist organizers there. It was an experience that was “emotional and inspiring,” said Jone Amonarriz, one of the activists who participated.

Ms. Amonarriz, 24, is from the group It’s In Our Hands, or Gure Esku Dago, that has spent the last four years touring Basque villages, encouraging residents to revive a discussion about independence.

“We are sure that in five years,” said the group’s co-founder, Angel Oiarbide, “the situation in the Basque Country is going to be very different.”

Back in Guernica, however, Luis Iriondo voiced what others believe remains the majority opinion.

“I’d like more power,” he said. “But not if it means losing what we already have.”

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