The Struggle for a Democratic Austria: Bruno Kreisky on Peace and Social Justice
Haider: Licht und Schatten einer Karriere [Light and Shadows of a Career]
Last summer, the European Court of Human Rights convened a special three-man panel led by Martti Ahtisaari, Finland’s former president, and the chief negotiator of the United Nations cease-fire in Kosovo. The panel’s expressed purpose was to travel to Austria and report on the “government’s commitment to the common European Values” and on “the evolution of the political nature of the FPÖ,” or Freedom Party, Austria’s controversial right-wing party and, since February 2000, the junior coalition partner in the Austrian federal government. Before the new government could be sworn in, the members of the European Union responded by imposing bilateral sanctions against Austria, a member of the EU since 1995.
In practice, the sanctions were little more than a prolonged official snub; but the organized snubbing of a member state turned out to be socially awkward (group photos were avoided at conferences, hands went unshaken), and legally questionable. The real if unexpressed purpose of the panel (which Austrians immediately, and even officially, referred to as “the three wise men”) was to allow the European Union to justify the sanctions, or to justify getting rid of them.
In their final report, issued in September, the three wise men got to have their torte and eat it too. Austria’s new government was, in their view, indeed “committed to the common European values” (which were vehemently invoked after being loosely defined); but the panel also condemned the Freedom Party—personified, in world and Austrian opinion, by Jörg Haider, its former longtime leader—for having “exploited and enforced xenophobic sentiments.” The report singled out for criticism the Freedom Party’s justice minister, a Roy Cohn– like character named Dieter Böhmdorfer, Haider’s personal lawyer, who is best known in Austria for representing Haider in his countless defamation suits.
Haider has spent nearly twenty years coming up with outrageous defenses of or equivocations about the crimes of the Third Reich—he has, for example, praised what he calls Hitler’s “proper employment policy,” insisted on calling a convicted war criminal “Austria’s last prisoner of war,” and substituted the term “punishment camp” for extermination camp—but he is ready to sue anyone who claims he has been sympathetic to the Nazi regime. In May, at a special press conference, with Böhmdorfer at his side, Haider went a step further and called for the prosecution of “disloyal” politicians, in particular the Socialist opposition leader, Alfred Gusenbauer, and the Austrian head of state, President Thomas Klestil, who were accused of not upholding national interests while discussing the Austrian crisis with other EU leaders; or, as Haider put it, of “drinking champagne with Austria’s enemies.” Böhmdorfer let it be known that Haider’s proposal was “worth following up.”
The EU panel’s report called for, and directly led to, the lifting of sanctions (which the panel also praised for having “heightened awareness of the importance of the common European Values”); and it condemned Böhmdorfer’s attempts to intimidate political opponents …