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Nationalists are watching separatist movements in Catalonia and Scotland, but aren’t rushing to leave Spain just yet.
VITORIA, Spain — On a day when front pages in Madrid and Barcelona were again dominated by Catalonia’s prospects of breaking away from Spain, the main story here in the capital of the Basque Country was its nomination as Spain’s "capital of gastronomy" for 2014.
For a region that long appeared to entertain Western Europe's most radical separatist tendencies, the Basque Country seems strangely unmoved by the winds of independence blowing across other parts of the continent.
That doesn't mean the Basques, braving a mid-winter chill in Vitoria's medieval heart — and tucking into salt cod, roasted pigs' ears or other examples of the city's renowned tapas culture — have lost their appetite for home rule.
"The nationalists here are in waiting mode," says Alberto Ayala, political analyst with the leading regional newspaper El Correo.
"They’re waiting to see what happens in Scotland, what happens in Catalonia," he said in an interview. "It doesn’t mean they’ve renounced their aspirations — on the contrary — but they don’t think now is the right moment."
Separatism has deep roots in the Basque Country, a ruggedly beautiful mountain region that hugs the Atlantic coast of northern Spain and is called Euskadi in the distinct local language.
Aside from a peaceful nationalist movement that has dominated Basque politics since Spain emerged from dictatorship in 1970s, a violent separatist group known as Basque Homeland and Freedom, or ETA, waged a campaign of shooting and bombing that killed more than 800 people between 1968 and 2011.
Although ETA declared a permanent cease-fire three years ago, the legacy of separatist violence helps explain why the Basques haven’t joined the rush for independence launched by Catalonia on Spain's eastern Mediterranean coast. The government in the Catalan capital Barcelona hopes to hold a referendum on the region’s future in November.
"Catalonia is not held back by the perverse effects of the violence that Euskadi suffered for more than four decades," the Basque Nationalist Party, or PNV, said in a written reply to questions from GlobalPost.
"Although ETA has renounced violence irreversibly, Euskadi has not healed the wounds of terrorism," added the conservative nationalist party, which currently runs the Basque regional government. "The starting points for Catalonia and Euskadi are different and so will be the paths the two nations take towards our freedom ... it's not a race or a competition."
Some of the differences can be explained by Spain’s return to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, when a new, decentralized constitution created regional governments and parliaments with powers to run local affairs. Demands for greater self-rule were particularly strong from Catalonia and the Basque Country, where local languages, culture and traditional freedoms had been suppressed.
Unlike the authorities in Catalonia however, the Basques also secured the right to raise their own taxes and fix their own budget.
When the global financial crisis hit Spain hard in 2009, it caused a recession that led to record unemployment and stinging cuts in public spending. In relatively rich Catalonia, complaints that taxes were being transferred to other, less-productive parts of Spain bolstered support for separatism. That triggered huge demonstrations and led regional president Artur Mas to call the independence referendum.
With control over its own budget, the Basque government has faced no such complaints. Basque President Inigo Urkullu has expressed support for the Catalan referendum — which the Spanish government in Madrid has vowed to block — but has shown no inclination to follow suit.
Urkullu's PNV party burned its fingers when it did try to push for a referendum in 2008 — after a plan to secure greater regional autonomy was rejected by the Spanish parliament, Ayala says.
The wording of that planned vote didn’t explicitly call for independence — only for the "right of the Basque people to decide" — but it was vetoed by Spain's constitutional court, a setback that was blamed for the PNV’s loss of power in 2009 for the first time.
This time around, Ayala says the PNV is waiting until Spanish national elections in 2015 in the hope they will produce a weak minority government in Madrid that will bend to demands for greater autonomy.
With that in mind, this week the PNV persuaded other parties in the Basque parliament to work on drafting a "new statute" of autonomy for the region.
Reaching agreement on that text may not be easy. Deep divisions between Basque nationalist parties have been cited as another reason why the region hasn’t been able to follow Catalonia in developing a mass, peaceful movement in support of independence.
"We have different concepts about which kind of country we want to build," says Laura Mintegi, a leader of the left-wing separatist coalition Euskal Herria Bildu.
"For us there's no point in asking for an independent state, but doing the same thing as the old state — I'm thinking about neo-liberal economic policies," she told GlobalPost. "It's fundamental to get social justice and we don't see the PNV moving in that way."
Mintegi was the left-wing coalition's candidate to head the Basque regional government in the 2012 election. She did well, leading the coalition — which includes former members of banned ETA-linked parties — to second place, close behind the PNV.
Together, the two nationalist groupings have 48 seats in the parliament in Vitoria — or Gastiez as the city is called in Basque. Spain's mainstream Socialist and conservative parties hold just 26 seats of the assembly's 75 seats.
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The nationalists' success doesn’t necessarily mean the Basques would vote to leave Spain even if they were to hold a referendum, however.
Only 25 percent expressed out-and-out support for independence in a poll carried out by the Basque Sociological Survey Office in November, compared to 29 percent resolutely opposed. The largest group — 31 percent — said it may be prepared to support independence "depending on the circumstances," a figure that would appear to give credence to the nationalist parties' cautious approach.
"Right now the focus is on the economy and peace because we understand that a country, to freely decide its future, must do so from a healthy economic situation and with a society that has managed to heal the wounds of the violent episode suffered by this people," the PNV's parliamentary group said. "But we have not forgotten our national demands, not at all."