Thu, May 25, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Montenegro vote spurs separatism in Spain

DPA , SAN SEBASTIAN, SPAIN

The referendum granting independence to the former Yugoslav republic of Montenegro is spurring similar hopes in Spain, where Basque and Catalan separatists see it as paving the way for their regions to become sovereign states.

The Montenegro vote "shows that the right to self-determination is real and is applied today in the heart of Europe," the Basque separatist party Batasuna said in a press release.

"I feel a sane envy," said Josep Lluis Carod-Rovira, leader of the Catalan separatist party ERC.

The Spanish government and mainstream parties, however, rushed to reject any comparisons between Montenegro and the Spanish regions, fearing a new upsurge of separatism.

The Montenegro referendum came at a time of a heated debate on the status of the Basque and Catalan regions, with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero planning to launch a peace process with the armed Basque separatist group ETA, while Catalonia has just secured a wider degree of autonomy from Spain.

Separatists and moderate regional nationalists stress small nations' right to self-determination in Europe, while the conservative opposition accuses the Socialist government of endangering the country's unity by being soft on regionalism.

The Montenegro referendum was awaited eagerly by nationalists in the northern Basque region of 2.1 million, where ETA has killed more than 800 people in its four-decade campaign for a sovereign Basque state carved out of northern Spain and southern France.

The group declared a permanent ceasefire in March, and Zapatero now intends to launch a peace process which is expected to include talks between the Basque political parties on the region's future.

The region's governing moderate nationalist party, PNV, and the Batasuna radicals are planning to table a request for a referendum on the right of the Basques to decide their own future, something Spain has categorically rejected so far.

"It may take several decades and successive referendums to win independence," conceded Joseba Alvarez, one of the leaders of Batasuna, which was banned in 2002 as ETA's political wing, but which expects to become relegalized soon.

About half of the Basques support nationalist parties such as Batasuna and the bigger PNV, which has proposed a considerably wider autonomy short of full independence.

Zapatero's government is trying to counter separatism by offering watered-down autonomy plans, such as the new Catalan statute, which has been approved by the Spanish parliament and is to be confirmed in a June 18 regional referendum. The plan fell short of separatist expectations in the wealthy north-eastern region of 6.8 million, where the radical ERC plays a minor, but increasingly visible role.

Regionalism is also on the rise in other regions, such as the southern Andalusia, which does not have its own language like the Basques and Catalans do, but which is nevertheless seeking a recognition of its specific identity.

The centrifugal tensions are causing concern in Madrid, where politicians and commentators stressed the differences between Spain and the former Yugoslavia.

The two were not comparable, "neither politically, nor diplomatically, nor judicially," Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana -- a Spanish Socialist -- said it would be "delirium tremens" to compare Montenegro with EU countries including Spain.

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