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World: Analysis From Washington -- 'The Furor Will Pass'

  • Paul Goble

Prague, 7 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The assumption of Austria's right-wing leader Joerg Haider that international anger at his party's inclusion in the government there will fade sooner or later reflects a fundamental reality of contemporary political life.

However misguided or evil a particular government's actions may be, leaders and populations in other countries are likely to find reasons to try to put the problem behind them and resume or even expand their ties with the very people whom they may have vigorously criticized in the past.

Joerg Haider, leader of Austria's extreme right-wing Freedom Party, last week lashed out at international criticism of Vienna's decision to include his party in a new coalition government there. But he suggested that both Austria and his party would survive it unhurt because "the furor will pass" as people get to know that his party reflects "the common values of Europe."

That prospect now seems very distant: The European Union has announced plans to impose sanctions, several countries have said they will recall their ambassadors, and at least one European foreign minister has said that Europe does not need Austria if Austria has a government which includes an admirer of Hitler.

But there are three important reasons for thinking that Haider's assertion may prove true.

First, however much outrage they are expressing today, many of the governments outraged now are unlikely to maintain either their anger or their focus on what is going on in Austria. They will turn to other issues, and as they do, they are likely to say and do less about Vienna.

Such moral fatigue is already happening. Initial attacks on Haider were very strong; follow-up criticism has been less harsh -- and that shift has occurred even before the government of which he is slated to be a part assumes office.

Second, these governments are likely to come under pressure from groups in their own societies which for various reasons want to continue their ties with Austria. Some of these will seek to do so in order to make profits, while others will argue that engagement rather than isolation is the best way to moderate people like Haider and his party.

Business interests in several countries have opposed breaking ties with Austria lest that hurt their bottom line and increase unemployment. And diplomats and political analysts in others have repeated the notion that Haider may not be as bad as he appears, that criticism will only make him more popular, and that his participation in the government will make him more responsible.

And third, every government is reluctant to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries lest other governments interfere in its own. These feelings are likely to be especially strong if the affairs in question reflect the outcome of a democratic process or if these actions enjoy enormous support in the population of the country involved.

Since the criticism of Haider began following his party's strong showing in the recent Austrian election, ever more political figures have cautioned against what they have called inappropriate interference in the policy choices of a democratic government. Indeed, the public debate about that has drowned out much of the moral outrage that political figures and commentators originally expressed.

Such a pattern is neither new nor unique. It can be seen in the way the international community has reacted to events like Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Chinese human rights violations, and Russian aggression in Chechnya.

But Haider may be wrong -- at least for awhile. The speed with which this process of forgetting and rehabilitation takes place depends not only on what the government in question has done. But even more it reflects the size and importance of the country in the eyes of others, with the past actions of larger states more quickly forgotten than those by smaller countries.

Haider's admiration for aspects of Hitler's rule and Austria's small size may mean that international criticism will continue longer than would otherwise be the case. Even if governments do moderate their stands, the moral outrage of people around the world about what Haider represents is nonetheless significant.

Their expressions of anger will help to ensure that Haider will be branded for all time as the extremist that he is. But even more important, such statements may dissuade others who might be thinking about following his course, even if they and their governments calculate that they can ride out the storm.