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Slovaks greet Haider cautiously

The inclusion of Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party in the Austrian cabinet last week caused Vienna to erupt in demonstrations and European and American diplomats to distance themselves firmly from the country's new right-wing coalition government.
In neighbouring Slovakia, however, government officials reacted to the news of Haider's triumph with caution, and said it did not mean that Austrian democratic institutions were threatened.
"Slovakia shares the concerns of the European Union over the entry of right-wing nationalist Jörg Haider into the new Austrian government, but is convinced that Austria's democratic institutions are stable.. and will not allow Austria to move away from the principles of the rule of law, democracy and human rights," said Slovak cabinet spokesman Martin Lengyel shortly before the naming of the Austrian government on February 2.


Austrian nationalist Jörg Haider has released a tide of criticism from European Union diplomats who have promised not to meet him.
foto: TASR

The inclusion of Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party in the Austrian cabinet last week caused Vienna to erupt in demonstrations and European and American diplomats to distance themselves firmly from the country's new right-wing coalition government.

In neighbouring Slovakia, however, government officials reacted to the news of Haider's triumph with caution, and said it did not mean that Austrian democratic institutions were threatened.

"Slovakia shares the concerns of the European Union over the entry of right-wing nationalist Jörg Haider into the new Austrian government, but is convinced that Austria's democratic institutions are stable.. and will not allow Austria to move away from the principles of the rule of law, democracy and human rights," said Slovak cabinet spokesman Martin Lengyel shortly before the naming of the Austrian government on February 2.

A former Slovak diplomat who now works in Austria said that Haider was indeed uncomfortably close to neo-Nazi groups, but that he would probably not seriously threaten Austria's democratic path. "Because of his parents [Nazi sympathisers in pre-anschluss Vienna], former Nazi officials are for Haider nice uncles and aunts whom he met when he was a child," said the former diplomat, who asked not to be named. "Haider is also popular in German far-right communities - when Haider comes, halls in Bavaria are full. But I wouldn't compare democratic Austria these days with politically weak Germany at the beginning of the 1930's."

Persona non grata

Haider, the 50 year-old son of a former Nazi official, has long shocked European diplomats with his calls for a ban on immigration to Austria, as well as his praise for Adolf Hitler's "orderly employment policy" and statements to the effect that Nazi SS troops "deserve all the honour and respect of the Army in public life."

After winning 27% of the vote in national elections last October, the most in his party's 45-year history, Haider waited patiently until efforts between Austria's Social Democrats and People's Party to form a government collapsed two weeks ago. An offer finally came on February 4 from the People's Party's Wolfgang Schussel to form a government with Schussel as Chancellor and Haider agreeing to remain out of cabinet as the Governor of the Carinthia region.

Even with Haider out of government, however, many European and world leaders feared the charismatic Nazi apologist would continue to wield power through the six ministerial posts the Freedom Party will control in the new government (vice-chancellor, defense, finance, social affairs, infrastructure and justice portfolios).

The EU responded by outlawing high-level contacts with Austrian diplomats and barring Austrian officials from top EU jobs. The United States called its ambassador back to Washington for consultations, while Israel withdrew its ambassador from Vienna completely. The inclusion of the Freedom Party in the Austrian government "should be an outrage to every citizen of the free world," read a press bulletin released in the name of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

But Slovakia has shown little of the same dismay evident in Europe, where Belgian Foreign Minister said "Europe can do without Austria," and that it would henceforth be "immoral to go skiing in Austria."

Foreign policy experts ascribed the silence from Bratislava to Slovakia's delicate position as a candidate for EU entry, one which left the tiny nation in need of support from all EU members - including Haider's Austria.

Magda Vášáryová, chair of the Slovak Foreign Policy Association and a former presidential candidate, said that Slovakia was understandably concerned that Austria might block its integration efforts, especially given the recent and bitter dispute between the two countries over the closure of Slovakia's Soviet-made nuclear power plant in Jaslovské Bohunice. As long as the Slovak government remained moderate in its comments on Haider, "I don't expect any troubles in this particular area," Vášáryová said on February 2.

Gabriele Matzner-Holtzer, Austria's Ambassador to Slovakia, reassured Slovak Deputy Prime Minister for European Integration Pavol Hamžík on February 3 that the programme of the new Austrian cabinet would favour EU integration and expansion, despite the determination of the EU to isolate Austria diplomatically. "There are signs of pressure to isolate Austria in some spheres, and it's obvious this won't help Austria in its foreign policy," she told the SITA news agency.

Hamžík responded that Slovakia had experienced something similar from Western diplomats when the far-right Slovak National Party was in the cabinet of Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar (1994 to 1998). He stressed that the current Slovak government respected the stand of the EU but would monitor developments in Austria and judge the new cabinet after its programme statement was published and concrete steps taken.

And despite the Slovak government's reluctance to make brash statements like those of its EU counterparts, there are signs that Bratislava will show its support for the EU stance through actions rather than words. Israel's Ambassador to Austria, Nathan Meron, had also served Slovakia from Vienna. Following Meron's withdrawal by the Israeli government, Slovak President Rudolf Schuster offered to find Meron an office in Bratislava. "That's a very good idea," responded Israeli President Ezer Weizman.

Indeed, the only political group in Slovakia to send greetings to Haider following the formation of the Austrian government was the Slovak National Party. The nationalists' spokesman Rafael Rafaj told The Slovak Spectator on February 7 that his party believed Haider would be good for Austria, and that his legitimacy had been proven by the support he had received in last October's elections.

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