Xenophobia Loosens Its Grip


January 28, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

SALZBURG, AUSTRIA — Salzburg, Austria.--Not all is gloom in southern Europe, as a new year gloomily begins. Two hundred thousand people marched in the streets of Vienna Saturday night in a demonstration against xenophobia. Austria is not a country where demonstrations are particularly the political style, and the country has a reputation for conservative and nationalistic views. But 200,000 people are 2.5 percent of the total national population of 7.58 million.

If a demonstration of the same proportions occurred in the United States, more than 7 million Americans would be marching. That would make even the Big Apple take notice.

On the same weekend, in the commune of Graz, Austria's second city, the nationalist and xenophobic political party headed by a dramatic young rightist politician, Jeorg Halder, doubled its score in a local election. It went from 11.8 percent in 1988 to 20.3 percent.

But this only brings Mr. Halder's party to the score attained in some local votes by France's rightist National Front. No one thinks France's Jean-Marie Le Pen a serious threat to the republican order in France even though his party in recent years has fairly consistently polled some 15 percent of the national vote.

The issue in Austria, as in Germany and France, is immigration and refugees -- foreigners inside the country, blamed for taking jobs the local people should have, or for living on social benefits or welfare payments the taxpayer finances.

In Austria, on the doorstep of the war in ex-Yugoslavia, there now are well over a half-million foreigners in the country, some 7 percent of the total population. The popular fear of foreign inundation has become much more acute since the fall of communism. War in Yugoslavia, and the prospect of unrest on the country's Hungarian and Slovakian borders, formerly secure, make Austrians feel they are seriously threatened.

The war in Croatia now has resumed, with Zagreb moving to reconquer the areas lost in 1991 to Serbian forces. The Croatian offensive, launched this week, is meant to make possible the return of Croatian refugees to their old homes. If it succeeds, however, it will do so by generating still more refugees, Serbs this time, either survivors of last year's Serbian campaigns, or people from elsewhere resettled in the places from which Croatians had been ''cleansed.''

The Hungarian government of the centrist Jozsef Antall has also made a new contribution to unrest in the region by supporting autonomy for the Hungarian communities outside Hungary's frontiers, in Serbia, Romania and Slovakia. There are half as many ethnic Hungarians outside Hungary as inside, thanks to the political settlements made after the two world wars.

A demand for political autonomy for Hungarian minorities inside other countries is automatically interpreted in those countries as prelude to an attempt by Hungary to annex them, and the Hungarian rightist leader Istvan Csurka, already known internationally for his anti-Semitic statements, has indeed said that Hungary requires new ''living-space.''

There are two distinct problems here, but they interact in a fateful way. The first is the sensitivity of populations to foreign immigrants and refugees. This has been particularly important in the German countries because of the German assumption, promoted since the early 19th century but untrue, that the German nation unites a ''race'' and therefore cannot be a society of immigration or assimilation.

This idea exists primarily in Germany itself, but has influenced Austria as well, despite the fact that the Austrian Hapsburg Empire was possibly the most multi-national or multi-''racial'' the world has ever seen. The most significant blow delivered to the old empire came in 1915, when Hungarians, Poles, Czechs and Slovaks all were demanding national independence: all of Austria's German parties, except the Social Democrats, issued a demand for a unitary German state.

The related idea is that members of a given nation or ''race'' have the right to regroup themselves, if necessary at the expense of others. This, in practice -- as Serbia and Croatia are demonstrating -- creates wars and flows of refugees. These refugees are unwanted in other countries and provoke popular reactions there of xenophobia.

Austria's Jeorg Halder on Monday launched a drive to collect signatures of support for his proposal that Austria's constitution be amended to declare Austria a country of non-immigration, with a limit on the number of foreign children permitted in a school class, among other restrictive measures.

He has to obtain 100,000 signatures for parliament to debate the issue. Parliament is totally in the control of the democratic parties (183 deputies against 33 for Mr. Halder), so there is no chance that such measures will be passed, but it is quite possible that Mr. Halder will get his 100,000 signatures.

On the other hand, in Germany, the major parties have agreed to make it easier for non-members of the German ''race'' to become nationals, by rewriting the exclusionary citizenship law of 1913. The proposal is to offer an uncomplicated naturalization to foreigners born in Germany, or to foreign residents with German educations. This comes after 80 years during which non-ethnic-German children born in Germany of German-born parents were usually denied citizenship. The news, as I say, is not all bad.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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