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Basque Autonomy Gets Another Look in Spain

A new autonomy plan is sowing discord in Spain, where the country's 17 regions already enjoy considerable autonomy. Drawn up by the moderate Basque government in northern Spain, the proposal opens the possibility of a fully independent nation. Madrid has rejected the plan as unconstitutional. Even residents of this restive region are divided.

Just about everybody in this seaside Basque city seemed to be out for a walk on a recent evening. Crowds strolled along a sidewalk hugging the bay, watching the Atlantic waves curl in. Young men jogged on the beach down below.

Most of San Sebastian's residents appeared to be ignoring a small demonstration taking place in the middle of town, where several dozen protesters marched on behalf of Basque separatist extremists locked up in Spanish jails.

The demonstrators included young people supporting the violent methods of the Basque terrorist group ETA, which wants to establish an independent nation in northern Spain and parts of southwestern France. But they also included older ones, like 55-year-old Charo Estolaca. Mrs. Estolaca is a social worker in San Sebastian. She says she has fought for an independent Basque country all her life. She says she picked up her fight from her father and her grand father before that.

Dreams of an independent Basque nation stretch back decades, if not centuries. Basque separatists point to a historical - and some say mythical - past when the region was independent. But not everybody agrees that violent methods are justified to achieve autonomy.

That includes the Basque government, headed by the moderate Basque Nationalist Party leader, Juan Jose Ibarretxe. Mr. Ibarretxes party rejects ETA violence. But it has drafted a new measure to renegotiate the Basque region's 1979 autonomy agreement with Madrid, which was accepted by the Basque parliament last month.

Besides calling for greater local control in areas such as research and employment, the plan also raises the possibility of a so-called status of free association with Spain, at some unspecified point in the future. The government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has denounced the autonomy petition, calling it unconstitutional. The Spanish parliament is expected to vote on the Basque proposal in the coming weeks.

Even it it is rejected in Madrid, Mr. Ibarretxe vows to put the plan up for a popular referendum in Basque country this year. Basque government spokeswoman Miren Azkarate explains why. "If Madrid says no, we would like to know what [Basque] society thinks about it, because nobody knows. Perhaps society does not back the new proposal. Then we are mistaken. Then the most logical thing would be to call for elections and have a new government. But if the Basque society says yes, this is a moral strengthening of our position," he says.

Demands for greater autonomy are mushrooming across Spain and elsewhere in Europe. In many cases the calls are peaceful.

Critics argue the Basque region already has far-reaching powers. It has its own police force, and controls health care and other social services. It is the only Spanish region with taxing powers, and most road signs are in both Spanish and the ancient Basque language of Euskera.

Skeptics also warn the Basque plan is sparking unrest elsewhere in Spain, including the wealthy Catalonia region. There, another independent-minded party, the Esquerra Republicana de Catalunia, has described the Basque proposal as, in its words, "appetizer" for its own autonomy demands.

Even Basque residents are deeply divided over Mr. Ibarretxe's proposal. Just ask Elena Lopez, who runs a bookstore in Getxo, an affluent town near the Basque capital of Bilbao. Ms. Lopez says she is against separating from Spain. The Basque region is part of Spain, she says.

Up the street, Basque lawmaker Marisa Arrue is also opposed to seceding from Spain. Ms. Arrue is a member of the conservative Popular Party, and is a deputy in the Spanish parliament as well as being a town councilor in Getxo. Ms. Arrue warns that Mr. Ibarretxe's plan provides fuel for ETA terrorists. Right now ETA is weak, she says. But she says the secessionist proposal is like an injection of oxygen for the extremists. Ms. Arrue also predicts the plan will be passed in a referendum, because Basques who oppose it will be too scared to vote. Like a number of local politicians opposed to Basque independence, Ms. Arrue has received death threats from ETA.

But other Basque residents support the plan. Some think it offers a peaceful road to independence, after 37 years of ETA violence that has killed more than 800 people. Even the Batasuna party, the banned political wing of ETA, voted in favor of the plan last month. But in the Basque town of Guernica, a symbol of Basque resistance during the Spanish civil war, 20-year-old university student Maria Arramuru doubts Mr. Ibarretxe's proposal will ever become a reality.

She says, of course she would like Basque country to become independent. But there are a lot of laws that make it difficult. That is why, Mrs. Arramuru says, the dream of a freestanding Basque country in Europe is probably a utopia.