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Haider's Critics Aren't Buying His Assurances

February 14, 2000|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KLAGENFURT, Austria — Since the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Slovenian minority in Austria's province of Carinthia has struggled to defend its culture.

In the first three grades of school, teachers are often rotated, one beginning a lesson speaking German and another completing it in Slovenian, so that children can learn both.

That's just the kind of cultural sensitivity that rankles Gov. Joerg Haider, who is at the center of a global controversy but maintains he is being portrayed unfairly. He is considering ways to get rid of bilingual education in Carinthia, to end what he sees as a waste of tax money and a harm to children's education.

"Children hear both languages, so the German-speaking children learn basics from the Slovenian, such as 'Hello, how are you?' and such," Marjan Sturm, a leader of the Slovenian minority, said in an interview. "This is incredible for German nationalists. The mayor of Klagenfurt, Harald Scheucher, said that it is like being a passive smoker."

Haider provoked international condemnation this month by negotiating his Freedom Party into a national government in which members of his party have half the Cabinet seats, including that of deputy chancellor.

Haider and his more moderately conservative ally in the coalition, Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, continue to insist that no one should worry that the far right now wields national power in a coalition government.

But Sturm and other critics who have lived under Haider rule in Carinthia don't buy the assurances delivered with cool smiles. They have long seen the Freedom Party's leader as a master of political sleight of hand.

Rather than force radical changes, leaving a clear record as a weapon for his enemies, Haider says a lot more outrageous things than he actually does. Some see his style as a sort of stealth nationalism with a longer-term goal.

'He Always Creates a Special Enemy'

Melitta Trunk, leader of the left-wing Social Democratic Party in Carinthia and a woman who has done battle with Haider for 20 years, is convinced that his habit of conjuring up ethnic and racial foes whom he can then attack is shaped by a single ambition: He wants to be chancellor of Austria.

With an unemployment rate around 7%--slightly higher than the rest of Austria's but lower than that of the country's powerful neighbor Germany--Carinthia doesn't seem the likely launch pad for the most successful far-right politician in Europe.

But Haider is such an effective populist that he can scare voters enough to believe he is their best hope.

"He always creates a special enemy," Trunk said. "Twenty years ago, it was the Slovene minority. Ten years ago, when our unemployment rate was even lower, he divided people into 'good working people' and 'bad unemployed.'

"We have a very good social [welfare] system for families. It's at the top in Europe. So Haider said: 'You have to pay so many taxes just because of these women who don't marry and have children. They are taking away your money.' Again, he was picking on the poor and the weak."

Haider was reelected governor of Carinthia last March, with 42% of the vote, and late in the year he announced that he planned to reform the bilingual education policy, without saying exactly how.

"Haider also announced that he wants to change the headmasters of the schools because they should not be bilingual," Sturm said. "He said it is discrimination against German-speaking people who cannot get the position of headmaster in these schools.

"The other problem is that some German nationalist organizations in Carinthia want to change the bilingual school system altogether, and they want to have a completely separated school system."

If Slovenian-speaking children were taken out of mixed classes, their separate schools would be "like a ghetto," Sturm said.

For many among Carinthia's shrinking Slovenian minority, this debate is about more than education policy. Promises were made and they should be kept, no matter who is in power, Sturm insists.

A century ago, Carinthia's 120,000 Slovenes formed the ethnic majority, he says, but a 1991 census set the total at 40,000 based on the question "What language do you use in your family?" The number of people able to speak Slovenian is closer to 54,000, Sturm says.

After World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria and neighboring Yugoslavia argued and at times fought over the territory. In the to-and-fro, Carinthia's Slovenian minority often suffered severe persecution.

Adolf Hitler annexed Austria into his Third Reich in 1938, and war between Yugoslavia and Nazi Germany broke out three years later. Carinthia's bilingual schools were shut down.

In 1955, the Allied powers restored Austria's sovereignty under the State Treaty, which included cultural protection for the Slovenian minority. That protection was later strengthened with laws that Sturm says are now at risk.

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