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Basque nationalists losing some sway in northern Spain.

Byline: Kevin Cap For The Register-Guard

SAN SEBASTIAN, Spain - Or should the dateline read "Donostia, Euzkadi?"

The festive holiday air of this chic coastal resort belies the continuing tensions within Spain's Basque region over its relations with the rest of the country.

There are hotly disputed, competing views about the future of what Basques call "Euzkadi," their historical homeland. These views range from relative contentment over the region's autonomy - as it already controls tax collection, education, health care and most policing - to demands for outright independence.

The Byzantine nature of Basque politics makes it hard to get a clear reading on public opinion (and added to the difficulty is the fact that not all people in the region are Basque).

But one clue came from the inauguration of Socialist Paxti Lopez as the regional president last month, which left the Basque Nationalist Party being relegated to second place for the first time in three decades.

Another element is the bitter public feud within the Basque nationalist community between what one might call a "realist" faction, which is prepared to be patient on the independence issue, and a radical faction that wants to emphasize independence above all else.

One huge practical difficulty of the latter course is the place of the Spanish language in the region. Even in Basque nationalist strongholds, Spanish predominates. Certainly on the streets of San Sebasti[sz]n, Spanish is by far the dominant idiom, and it is hard to see how it could be relegated to the status of a "foreign" language, as some radical Basques advocate.

While the Basque language has a proud history as Europe's oldest tongue, dating back thousands of years, its practical usage is confined to northern Spain and a small part of southwestern France.

However these issues play out, there is clearly an increasing rejection of violence as a means to achieve further autonomy.

The armed ETA (Basque nationalist) group, which broke a truce with Madrid in 2007, has been hit by a number of serious setbacks since then, as its key leaders have been arrested and jailed. It is now harder for ETA to recruit among the young, and businesses are increasingly resisting the payment of a "revolutionary tax" to support the organization, which is responsible for about 820 deaths since its foundation in 1959.

Yet the Madrid government does not have entirely clean hands in dealing with Basque militants. Police brutality against even those who seek independence peacefully is all too common. Virtually every Basque town or city has posters and graffiti calling for the return to the Basque region of some 700 jailed ETA members, who are now spread throughout other regions of the country.

One sensible gesture the government of Prime Minister Jos Luis Zapatero could make would be to allow the prisoners to serve their time closer to their families. Another would be to take into account public opposition (based partly on ecological grounds) to the fast train link that would join Paris to Madrid via the Basque region.

It would be easy to ignore all of this on a sunny day in June. The crowds that line the beaches and mob the cafs of the elegant old town might be on the French Riviera, except that there is a perceptible edge to the atmosphere, and political discussions are best avoided.

Among some Basques, there is resentment of wealthy Madrile[+ or -]os' purchase of property in this verdant part of Spain, much as Corsicans resent the same phenomenon of outside money buying villas on their island.

As nation-states have receded in importance in contemporary Europe, areas once regarded as mere regions now long for the attributes of nationhood. This is as true for the Basques as it is for the Catalans to the east, the Scottish in Britain and the Flemish in Belgium.

Paradoxically, the catalyst of much resentment toward national capitals is linguistic, even though more Europeans speak "foreign" languages than ever before.

The Basques are among the most fascinating of peoples - great wanderers, yet fervently attached to Euzkadi. Many of them wandered as far as the Philippines or to the American West - my own aunt was born of Basque parents in a remote part of Eastern Oregon.

Yet they will need to come to some kind of peaceful accommodation with the Spanish - much as they did in the Middle Ages, when Castilian grandees were forced to recognize their special status.

Such a happy outcome seems increasingly possible.

Eugene native Kevin Cap is a writer and teacher living in Paris.
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Title Annotation:Local Opinion
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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