Bilbao (Spain) (AFP) – “Let the Catalans vote!” It is a phrase widely heard across Spain’s Basque Country in fiercely separatist villages as well as in large moderate cities, often mingled with exasperation at Madrid.
“I am not for independence but at this moment there is no democracy,” said retired truck driver Candi Cordero, 65, referring to the crackdown on preparations for Sunday’s independence referendum in Catalonia which Madrid has branded illegal.
“I would love it if there were referendums in the Basque Country and Catalonia, but legal, agreed with the rest of Spain,” he said as he strolled through the streets of Bilbao, the economic capital of the northern Basque Country, home to 2.1 million people.
Like Catalonia, the Basque Country has its own distinct language and culture.
But while nationalist sentiments also run high in the region, most Basques are keen to preserve the peace achieved since the Basque separatist group ETA officially abandoned violence in 2011.
“We have been vaccinated, we had problems which the Catalans did not,” said Alberto, a 55-year-old businessman who preferred not to give his last name.
ETA, which is blamed for over 800 deaths in a decades-long campaign of bombings and shootings for an independent Basque homeland, disarmed in April this year.
– ‘The government is pathetic’ –
In the town of Hernani, a separatist bastion some 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Bilbao, red and yellow Catalan flags decorate public buildings while walls are decorated with portraits of ETA members who were killed by security forces.
“The government is pathetic, it believes that everything can be resolved with repression,” said Arantxa Beobide who was having a beer at a bar in the centre of this town where people openly support leftist Basque separatists, include former ETA members.
“You would think we’re in the Spain of 50 years ago,” said the 48-year-old graphic designer referring to the years of dictatorship under Franco (1939-1975).
The mayor of Hernani will be part of a group of around 100 members of Basque separatist party EH Bildu who plan to travel to Catalonia on Sunday to “observe” the independence referendum.
Arnaldo Otegi, a former top ETA member and head of nationalist party Sortu, recently went to Catalonia to march alongside Catalan separatists.
– Envied by Catalonia –
He also took part in a rally in Bilbao on September 16 in support of Catalonia’s independence referendum.
Organised by “Gure Esku Dago”, a group that lobbies for Basque self-determination whose name means “In Our Hands”, the march drew thousands of people in a region which regularly protests in favour of independence.
With ETA on the brink of disbanding, polls show support for independence in the Basque country has recently dropped to around 30 percent, compared to around 40 percent in Catalonia, said Rafael Leonisio, a political scientist working for pollsters Euskobarometro.
Governed by the moderate Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), the Basque Country enjoys a great deal of fiscal autonomy, a system which is also desired by Catalonia.
Isabel Gonzalez, a 37-year-old secretary, believes a virulent independence movement has little chance of being reactivated because the regional government “knows how to manage the question of money very well.”
“And with the economic crisis, people think more about jobs,” she added.
– ‘Disinterest’ –
In his plush office in the seaside city of San Sebastian, Ruben Mugica, a lawyer who belongs to a group representing the families of victims of ETA violence said they never discuss the Catalan question.
“It’s good that there are people who are for and against the referendum. But the option of disinterest should also be legitimate,” he said.
The Catalan crisis has nonetheless pushed the regional leader of the Basque Country, Inigo Urkullu, to become more vocal. He urged Madrid last week to allow independence referendums and recognise Catalonia and the Basque Country as “nations”.
And the Spanish government under Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy cannot afford to completely ignore the PNV, which has five seats in the national parliament and whose support he needs to pass the 2018 draft budget.
But a source close to the Basque government told AFP it would be “very difficult” for the PNV to back the budget at a time when the government was cracking down in Catalonia because its electorate — some of whom are separatists — simply would not understand.
Analysts said any move to withhold support for the budget would be a pragmatic step aimed at negotiating more autonomy for the Basque Country and not a bid to revive a regional independence movement.
“They want to secure the best deal possible but not lose face,” said Caroline Gray, an expert on Spanish independence movements at Britain’s Aston University.
At her traditional stone guesthouse near Eibar, Esther Gisasola, 75, her white hair impeccably combed, said she feels “Basque and not at all Spanish”.
“Let’s see if under pressure from Catalonia, Spain will renew our democracy” by changing the status given regions, she said.