Austrian nationalist Jörg Haider is not a welcome addition to European politics, but one must ask whether the EU's leap to isolate Austria diplomatically is a suitable response to the inclusion of Haider's Freedom Party in the new Austrian government. The man was, after all, elected democratically by over 27% of his compatriots.
It was thus good to see Slovakia's politicians keeping their heads last week while all around them EU leaders seemed to be losing their minds. Let's just wait, Bratislava said, and see what happens before we start withdrawing ambassadors. Let's see how the Austrian government acts before telling our people it's "immoral" to visit the country.
For those who watched Slovak politics during the 1990's, the latest developments represent a neat reversal of fortune between Bratislava and Vienna. Less than two years ago, Slovakia itself was led by a charismatic nationalist named Vladimír Mečiar, in a coalition government with an even more intemperate immigrant-hater than Haider, the infamous Ján Slota. The country was isolated diplomatically as well, having accumulated three EU démarches (a feat Vienna has now surpassed with one massive EU boycott of its diplomats). The Slovak government was then bleating the same excuses as Haider is now - "we were democratically elected, don't interfere in our domestic affairs," etc. (Haider's attack on French President Jacques Chirac - "He's a megolomaniac who doesn't know what he's talking about. I don't care who he is." - reminds one quite nostalgically of Mečiar's crude attack on the Czech Prime Minister Václav Klaus - "there's a new Czech banknote out now with a picture of Klaus with the Czech crown up his arse.")
Perhaps it is recent memory that is keeping Bratislava sounding so reasonable. Perhaps it is also the recognition that Slovakia could easily produce another Haider of its own in 2002.
The most recent voter poll conducted by the Markant agency shows that populism and nationalism still find as much resonance in the Slovak countryside as in the valleys of the Tirol. Mečiar's HZDS is surging ahead with over 32% support, while Róbert Fico's new Smer ('Direction') Party has doubled its support in one month to 14.3% (Fico is the savvy demagogue who advocates cutting the social benefits of Romanies who apply for asylum abroad). The Slovak National Party, having ousted the drunken Slota, is still pulling in redneck support for its anti-Hungarian, anti-Roma, anti-welfare 'policies' at 7.2% and climbing. Add these three parties together and you get 53.7%, well above the current ruling coalition's 39.8% backing.
It may be giving Slovak politicians too much credit to suggest they would hold fire on Haider so as not to appear hypocritical on the international stage. If it served the interests of the government, one can be sure that Bratislava would match Brussels word for hysterical word. But the same things that characterise Haider's voters - low education, low skills and resentment of Vienna fat cats - also typify Slovaks who support Mečiar, Fico and the Slovak National Party. Even those Slovaks who support the government are fed up with unemployment and price hikes, and are susceptible to easy solutions such as those offered by Haider's Freedom Party. Were the Slovak government to condemn Haider strongly, it might discover that many Slovak voters sympathise with much of what the Austrian leader has to say.
Whether Fico is a rising Haider, and whether the current government will be unseated by a nationalist constellation in 2002 remains to be seen. But whatever happens, Austria's recent experiences seem to have touched a chord of recognition, if not sympathy, in Bratislava.