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Haider’s Resignation Doesn’t Ease Pressure

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

The surprise retreat by extreme rightist Joerg Haider from the leadership of Austria’s controversial Freedom Party failed Tuesday to ease the international scorn that has been directed at Vienna since his lieutenants took national office last month.

From the European Union states, which have imposed a diplomatic deep freeze on Austria, to the Israeli government, which withdrew its ambassador to protest the far-right party’s rise to its power-sharing role, foreign leaders dismissed Haider’s resignation as a ploy to disengage himself from the political uproar he instigated.

“The problem is not Joerg Haider but what his party represents,” said Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, whose country is now presiding over the 15-state European Union. He confirmed that EU political sanctions that have stung Austria since its coalition government took power Feb. 4 will stay in place.

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Haider’s resignation “does not change anything for us,” Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy told reporters, adding that Israel will continue to withhold its envoy as long as Haider’s party remains in the Austrian Cabinet.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel called Haider’s move a “ploy to mollify Western capitals,” and numerous foreign observers speculated that the far-right leader is trying to position himself to become the next chancellor of Austria by distancing himself from any unpopular moves the government may make.

The charismatic 50-year-old, who had led the Freedom Party since 1986, holds no federal government post himself in the ruling coalition with the conservative People’s Party. But he was seen as the power behind the throne of Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, and critics and supporters alike predicted that he will continue to wield strong influence over the government.

“We will continue to work as a team and operate as a political partnership,” said Austrian Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer, who was named the new Freedom Party leader.

At an exchange with journalists in Vienna, Schuessel suggested that Haider resigned the party leadership to deflect the international criticism that has subjected the new government to repeated diplomatic snubs and massive protests by Austrians opposed to the far right’s anti-immigrant and anti-European-unity policies.

“I don’t believe it is a game or a tactical maneuver, but a serious offer to ease pressure on the government,” said Schuessel, a member of the People’s Party. “I take this offer very seriously.”

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As the politician who invited Haider’s party into the government, Schuessel has been bearing the brunt of the public anger over Austria’s isolation. At least 150,000 protesters converged on Vienna on Feb. 19 to demand that the coalition step down and spare the country further humiliation.

On the strength of Haider’s rabble-rousing speeches, the Freedom Party won the second-largest vote share, with 27%, in an Oct. 3 national election--a fraction ahead of Schuessel’s conservatives. The teaming up of the two parties emerged after four months of on-again off-again coalition talks between the People’s Party and the Social Democrats, who had governed Austria together for 13 years.

Haider raised hackles in the early 1990s when he praised Adolf Hitler’s stewardship of the Third Reich economy as “orderly” and described jackbooted SS troops as “men of honor.” He apologized for those remarks during last year’s election campaign, but many see Haider as a closet Nazi sympathizer and fear that his penchant for blaming immigrants for crime and unemployment is a thinly disguised inflaming of racial tensions.

The surprise decision by Haider to step down after leading his party from virtual obscurity to a position as the most powerful far-right force in Europe might have been precipitated by a particularly embarrassing bout of diplomatic snubs earlier Monday.

“I don’t eat with fascists,” the Belgian delegate to an EU defense ministers meeting in Sintra, Portugal, told reporters after boycotting a luncheon to protest Austrian Defense Minister Herbert Scheibner’s presence.

At another ministerial session, at EU headquarters in Brussels, several diplomats pointedly refused to shake hands with Austrian Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser.

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