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Friday, 4 February, 2000, 13:35 GMT
Austria's problem with foreigners
Haider supporters take their views to Rome
Haider supporters take their views to Rome
By Emma Batha

The sudden re-emergence of the far right in Austria has not only shocked its European neighbours, but left them scratching their heads in bafflement.

The rise of the Freedom Party and its controversial figurehead Joerg Haider has upset their assumption that prosperity and liberal values go hand in hand.

Population in 1998
Austrians 7,681,500
Foreigners total 739,800
Former Yugoslavia 337,900
Turkish 138,200
Mr Haider has propelled himself to power on an anti-immigration ticket. To hear his campaign speeches, you might be forgiven for thinking the country was in the midst of a crippling unemployment crisis.

Yet Austria is the seventh richest state in the world per capita, and unemployment, at 6.7%, is among the lowest in Europe - France and Italy are both struggling with rates around 12%.

So what is sending Austria lurching to the far right if it is not economic hardship? The answer would seem to lie in its post-war history, and the fear of mass immigration when eastern countries join the European Union.

Fortress Austria

Austria shares borders with four states that are preparing for EU admission - Slovenia, Hungary the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The first could join as early as 2003 and, once they do, their nationals should in theory be free to work in other member states.

Mr Haider likes to liven up his campaign speeches with jokes about Romanian pickpockets, Albanian welfare spongers and dirt cheap East European labour.

Since the beginning of the nineties, one million people have come to Austria. This has to stop

Joerg Haider
And his posters call for a stop to ''ueberfremdung'', a xenophobic word last used by the Nazis to describe the country being ''overrun with foreigners''.

Another far right leader, millionaire businessman Richard Lugern, talks about building ''Fortress Austria'' to stop the imminent arrival of ''five million'' East European commuters.

Wages are three times higher in Vienna, which is only a 90-minute journey from several major conurbations across the border.

Brain drain

But Peter Pulzer, an expert in Austrian affairs and former professor at Oxford University, says the country's fears are exaggerated and border controls are likely to remain for a transitional period.

Joerg Haider
Joerg Haider: We're not Nazis
He also points out that Austria is not the only country worried about EU expansion.

Germany could face the same problem when Poland joins up and the eastern European countries themselves are worried about a possible brain drain.

Prague and Budapest do not want to lose their surgeons and computer programmers to Vienna any more than Austria wants to be inundated with immigrants.

Iron curtain

But EU expansion is not the only explanation for Mr Haider's success.

Surveys have consistently shown that xenophobia is widespread in Austria.

We are not Nazis...Immigration is a big issue in Austria, and I am lambasted because I have spoken the truth, and somehow that is bad

Joerg Haider
In a 1997 poll, 42% of Austrians admitted to some degree of racism, compared with an EU average of 33%. And 70% said there would be problems if the minority population increased.

Dr Richard Luther, an expert in European politics from Keele University, says Austria has traditionally been an inward looking country with very low social and geographic mobility.

This means Austrians have not had the same exposure to other cultures and value systems as some other European countries.

Until recently, Austria has been relatively protected from large immigrations by the Iron Curtain.

This began to change when the border with Hungary opened up in 1989. Since then, the crises in the Balkans and consequent refugee influx has left it feeling further exposed.

Nazi past

Political analysts say Austria's refusal until very recently to acknowledge its Nazi past is also significant in the rise of the right.

Post-war Austria was built on the myth that it was a victim of Nazi aggression, rather than an accomplice.

Unlike Germany, it buried its past and its former Nazis were reintegrated, rather than re-educated. It has in some ways protected itself from the idea that it might be a racist country.

But analysts stress that 28% support for the Freedom Party does not mean that 28% of voters are xenophobic, let alone neo-Nazis.

''If Haider was really a Nazi, he would be getting 5% of the vote. Younger Nazis are extremely unpleasant, but they are not numerous,'' Professor Pulzer says.


Mr Haider's supporters traditionally come from the farming and shopkeeping classes. But their numbers have recently been swelled by blue collar workers who are turning away from the Social Democrats in droves.

Many are simply dissatisfied with a political system that is monopolised by two parties and rife with bureaucracy and cronyism.

Post-war Austria has been run for all but 17 years by a coalition of the Social Democrats and the People's Party, formerly the Christian Socialists.

They have tended to carve up the top jobs in banking, industry and other sectors between their members.

A greying country

The far-right's new converts have a vast array of agendas, which means the Freedom Party will have a tough job keeping them all happy.

But whether Mr Haider survives in politics or not, it is almost certain that Austria will have to take on large numbers of foreign workers in the not too distant future.

The EU has a population which is shrinking and ageing fast. The United Nations has forecast that tens of millions of immigrants will be needed in the next 25 years to keep EU economies running and prevent the collapse of pension systems.

And Austria is among the handful of countries where the UN says the situation is so acute that mass immigration is almost unavoidable.

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03 Oct 99 |  Europe
Profile: Joerg Haider
02 Feb 00 |  Europe
Joerg Haider: Key quotes
02 Feb 00 |  Media reports
Europe's press differs over Haider
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