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Austria: Rightist Coalition Concerns Eastern Neighbors

In contrast to the European Union's unity in threatening to freeze relations with member state Austria in the event Joerg Haider's right-wing Freedom Party joins a government coalition, Austria's eastern neighbors have shown considerably less unity. RFE/RL's Jolyon Naegele reports.

Prague, 2 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The EU's threat to freeze relations with Austria has angered Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider.

After reaching agreement with the conservative People's Party last night on forming a coalition government, subject to approval by President Thomas Klestil, Haider responded to the EU's criticism.

"The attempt from abroad to oppose the wish of the Austrians for a change of the political system that they no longer want to have is simply not in order. And therefore if we are in the position to present a good program, to work in trust, that is the decisive thing, they should measure us by our deeds rather than what is contained somewhere in the government declaration."

The EU's threat to isolate Austria has caused almost as much concern in Central European capitals as Haider's controversial remarks.

The Czech Republic's chief negotiator on EU membership, Pavel Telicka, describes the EU declaration as an expression of concern about the possibility of an undemocratic development in one of its member states. But he says the EU action amounts to interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign state that he says has no parallel in the history of the EU.

Czech parliament speaker Vaclav Klaus, a longtime critic of the EU, says "It is very strange when someone does not accept the decision of Austrian voters and wants to dictate who should be in the government and who should not." But Klaus distanced himself from Haider, saying the Austrian politician's comments do not bode well for the Czech Republic.

Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman says Haider is a "real threat to democracy" and compares him to France's Jean-Marie Le Pen and Russia's Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

In Slovenia, President Milan Kucan said in an interview in the Ljubljana daily "Delo" today that the entry of Haider's Freedom Party into an Austrian coalition government would "pose a danger for all of Europe due to Haider's views on the past, populism, and xenophobia."

The Slovene president had already expressed concern last October, after Austria's parliamentary elections propelled Haider's party to second place. He termed as "dangerous for Slovenia" Haider's view that Slovenia should revoke the Yugoslav laws dating to the end of the Second World War that justified expelling ethnic Germans from all of what was then Yugoslavia.

Croatia, which is not yet a candidate for EU membership, has a new parliament and an upcoming presidential runoff election, and it has not commented on the Haider issue.

Hungary, which has a traditionally close relationship with Austria, said today it would not join in EU sanctions against Austria. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban told Hungarian Radio this morning he was surprised by the unity and firmness of the EU response to Haider.

Slovakia, which over the past decade has built up close ties with Austria -- their capital cities are just 55 kilometers apart -- has been largely silent over Haider. Slovak authorities said it would be premature to comment on the EU's threat.

The Slovak Foreign Ministry (spokeswoman Monika Keimova) says: "Slovakia is convinced that Austria has sufficiently democratic institutions which would not permit a diversion from the principles of a state of law, democracy, and the observance of human rights."

Poland, not a direct neighbor, but a close friend of Austria's, has expressed concern. The Polish Foreign Ministry (spokesman Pawel Dobrowolski) says Poland understands the EU's concern that Poland is not at present considering any steps against Austria and is awaiting further developments in Vienna.

Although the EU and the U.S. scorn Haider, and Israel says it will recall its ambassador to Austria, Simon Wiesenthal said today "Haider is overestimated as a direct danger." Wiesenthal, the head of the Vienna-based Jewish Documentation Center, says Haider is not a neo-Nazi but a right-wing populist who has never publicly spoken out against the Jews or Israel. Wiesenthal says a large portion of those who voted for Haider were "protest voters," who he says could quickly change political camps.

A political scientist at Britain's Keele University, Kurt Richard Luther has studied Haider's Freedom Party and come to similar conclusions.

"The Freedom Party is more of a populist party, which rejects the established way in which politics is conducted and argues instead for the superiority of a popular system which the party says it embodies. The party says it wants more direct control by the people through referendums. It wants more transparency in government. The essence of the party has already been opposed to the postwar Austrian political system. Its attack on immigrants and other groups is just populism, just a means to an end to achieve power.

Luther says what Haider's party objects to is the consensual style of Austrian politics. For decades, the political scene has been dominated by two major parties -- the Socialist Party and the People's Party.