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Putting Austria into Perspective

By Gernot Wagner

On March 4, Jrg Haider's far-right Freedom Party joined a coalition with the conservative People's Party to form what one columnist called Austria's first "underground government"--referring to the fact that to be sworn in, the new government had to use a secret tunnel joining its offices with the President's residence to avoid facing demonstrators on the square above. The next day, the 14 other member nations of the European Union (EU) downgraded Austria's diplomatic status, the U.S. temporarily called back its ambassador for consultations in Washington and Israel withdrew its entire embassy.

The reason for this frenzy was clear. Haider, who openly praised Hitler's "orderly" employment policies, should not be allowed to see his party govern a country that still has a long way to go in putting its role in World War II into perspective. The goals of this opposition, however, are far less obvious. In the beginning, it might have been to force the Freedom Party out of government. Later on, it was simply to show open discontent with the Austrian voters' decision to support a man who came to a meeting of former members of Hitler's Waffen SS and praised them as "decent men of character."

Toward whatever goal, the means undertaken by the EU have been completely ineffective. Worse, they are actually working to strengthen Haider's position. Haider now has a legitimate reason to point out his respect for democracy and the EU's lack thereof. His party's finance minister can now also justify the threats of using the American tactic of waiting with the payment of dues to international organizations, and Haider even has a basis for calling for a general referendum whether Austria should remain in the EU or not. Ending the long period of denial in the EU, member states are finally coming to terms with their miscalculation. After the last meeting of all 15 foreign ministers, Austria's foreign minister proudly proclaimed that at least six EU members openly showed their uneasiness with the sanctions and demonstrated the willingness to rethink them. Even though the remaining countries--particularly Germany, France and Belgium--still support the current EU policies towards Austria, the meeting showed a first break in this hitherto unified stand against one of its members.

This tension creates a win-win situation for the Freedom Party. Keeping the sanctions enables it to gain even more votes by acting as the advocate for the "small Austrian"; gradually lifting them leads to continuing victories for Haider in his crusade for democracy and justice.

What is needed now is an EU-wide acknowledgement that sanctions are not the right measure to interfere with a sovereign country's internal affairs. This can, and even should, be combined with a very clear and direct joint statement condemning Haider and his party's involvement in the Austrian government. Either way, the sanctions will eventually fall, but whether they will continue for a week, a month or a year, they will not fulfill their purpose in the future, nor have they achieved any desirable results in the past. Haider stepping down as the official head of his party was not a consequence of the sanctions. It was a purely tactical move, which will allow him later on to distance himself from the mistakes his party is bound to make while in power.

So far, these lapses mainly focused on words rather than actions, and despite his stepping down, even Haider himself does not seem to be able to remain silent for a while. He called French President Jacques Chirac a "pocket Napoleon." He accused Alfred Gusenbauer, head of the moderate Social Democrats, of eating with a hammer and sickle instead of fork and knife. Haider even claimed to have "reunited" Bill and Hillary Clinton after Monica Lewinsky "separated" them, since both Clintons condemned Haider's party's participation in the Austrian coalition government.

Haider's statements are not extremist, nor are they far-right. They are populist, immature and inappropriate. Yes, the new government does indeed aim on strengthening the military, increasing the holes in the welfare net and creating a leaner government, but that is what conservative governments--anywhere--tend to do. The concentration camp in Mauthausen is not going to be activated again, Hitler will not receive a memorial in Vienna, nor will any government agency order to burn books or censor teaching material describing the atrocities of the Holocaust. Politicians like Haider should not be allowed to govern an idyllic country in the heart of Europe, but this is for the people to decide, not for foreign governments with good intentions who end up worsening the situation even more.

Maybe we can put all this into perspective. The French government supports sanctions against Austria because of what Haider said about Hitler's actions fifty years ago. The French government also supported the Hutu regime in the years leading up to the worst genocide our own generation has seen. In June 1994, France allowed the killing of Tutsis to continue for another month, and the French involvement even helped the genocidal Hutu leadership to cross safely into the neighboring Congo.

Putting the situation in Austria into perspective will guarantee that just as quickly as the country appeared prominently on the world's front pages earlier this year, Austria is going to disappear again as quickly to resume its traditional place--somewhere between the travel and foods sections, and possibly even as a byline on the winter sports page.

Gernot Wagner '02, a Crimson editor, is an environmental studies and public policy and economics concentrator in Quincy House.

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