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Austria: Resentment Of EU Criticism Could Benefit Haider

The European Union has warned Austria that it could face international isolation if the right-wing Freedom Party led by Joerg Haider joins a new government. But political analysts in Vienna say the warnings could be counterproductive and actually lead to more support for Haider.

Vienna, 1 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- All fourteen of Austria's fellow EU members have warned that Austria could face political isolation if a coalition government is formed between Haider's righting Freedom Party and the Austrian People's Party.

Europe's governments are worried that Haider, who has frequently made statements sympathetic to the Nazis, could play a leading role in Austrian politics even if he is not in the government itself. They are distressed that this could happen in a year when Austria is chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an institution devoted to democracy and human rights. Haider's anti-immigrant views are seen as particularly disturbing as the EU prepares to admit new members from Eastern Europe.

Many commentators fear that if Haider's Freedom Party is invited into the government, Austria could face the same isolation it suffered when it elected Kurt Waldheim as state president in 1986. Waldheim was accused by international organizations of covering up the fact that he served in World War II in a unit that was implicated in war crimes.

After his election, the United States placed Waldheim on what it calls its "Watch List" and denied him permission to enter the country. European governments refused to receive him. Normal relations with Austria resumed only when he completed his term of office in 1992.

Many Austrians fear this isolation could return. But at the same time, they are angry at what they see as foreign attempts to interfere in Austrian affairs. The ministers of justice and defense have voiced strong disapproval of EU interference. Ordinary Austrians, too, are resentful of the criticism.

One of them is Ute Esser, a Viennese housewife. She says Austria is being singled out unfairly.

"We don't interfere in the affairs of other countries. The others didn't interfere when the neo-fascists joined the Italian government a few years ago. They didn't interfere when the communists were in the French government."

Some believe that the international pressure could be counterproductive and lead Austrians to dig in their heels and support Haider and the Freedom Party out of anger.

In Austria, such a backlash against foreign interference in national affairs is commonly known as the "Waldheim effect." Commentators say that many Austrians did not want Waldheim as president in 1986. But the international campaign against him and the nation led to a phenomenon expressed in the German slogan "jetzt erst recht" -- which can be translated as "now we'll really do it."

Instead of turning against Waldheim, Austrians rallied behind him and elected him president with 54 percent of the vote. And they allowed him to serve a full six-year term, despite frequent suggestions by outsiders that he should step down to avoid further damage to the country.

If the international criticism takes effect, and the negotiations between the People's Party and the Freedom Party break down, the next step for Austria is uncertain. Many Austrians believe such a situation could be resolved only by calling new elections in the hope that a clear winner would emerge to form a government. Some commentators believe that in new elections, the most likely winner would be Haider and the Freedom Party.

Political analyst Peter Wagner is one of them. "If the European Union has its way and these negotiations on a government fail, there will have to be new elections," he said. "With the present attitude among the public, that could lead to victory for Haider and allow him to form a government."

That would be the outcome the European governments want most to avoid.