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News 19 Dec 17

New Austria Govt ‘Unlikely to Change Balkans Policy’

While some observers have raised concerns about the future political direction of Austria’s new right-wing government, analysts believe that its foreign policy in the Balkans will not change.

Maja Zivanovic, Danijel Kovacevic
Belgrade, Banja Luka

A demonstrator holds a poster 'Nazis out of the parliament' during a demonstration prior to the swearing-in ceremony of the new Austrian government led by a conservative and a nationalist party in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Dec. 18, 2017. Photo: AP Photo/Ronald Zak

Austria’s new government, made up of the centre-right People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party, has already been the subject of warnings that it might stray from European values, but analysts said they don’t expect major shifts in the way the country treats the Balkans.

Milos Solaja from the Centre for International Relations from Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina told BIRN that he’s not expecting visible changes in Austria's policy towards the Balkans, where it is politically and economically active.

“First of all, they provided support in the process of Euro-integration both in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. But they are also extremely active financially in this region. Austria is the largest investor in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Solaja explained.

“What we can expect is that Austria pledges to accelerate the path to the EU for the countries of the Western Balkans,” he said.

Austria’s People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party agreed this weekend to form an administration, meaning that, according to Politico, Austria is the only Western European state with a government that includes an anti-immigrant, populist force.

The Freedom Party is Eurosceptic as well as being known for its anti-Muslim views.

“The Freedom Party, whose last foray into government in 2000 sparked censure from Austria’s EU partners, has flirted with anti-European positions for years and considers France’s National Front a close ally,” Politico said.

But Solaja noted that the head of the People’s Party, Sebastian Kurz, is well-known for his stances on foreign affairs, so surprises should not be expected.

“So I do not believe he will let them [the Freedom Party] get out of a pre-arranged, broad political framework… That is why I do not believe that there will be a sudden and steep shift in politics. Changes will come gradually,” he said.

The People’s Party is also a member of the European People’s Party, the pan-European alliance of which many Balkan political parties are members or associate members.

Marko Kmezic, a senior researcher at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz in Austria, told BIRN that it is not clear who will lead the new government’s foreign policy since the ministries of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs have now been divided.

“So Prime Minister Kurz will continue to lead Austrian European policy, firstly to influence the forthcoming Austrian presidency of the European Union, while the FPO [Freedom Party] will take over the portfolio of foreign affairs,” Kmezic said.

He added that this could mean that Kurz’s party will have the most influence on the Balkan countries’ European perspective, describing this as “the best-case scenario in which there will be no changes in Austrian politics towards the Balkans”.

The leader of the far-right Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, has expressed views which would worry some communities in the Balkans.

Strache said in an interview in February with Radio Television Republika Srpska, the public broadcaster in Bosnia’s mainly Serb entity, that “Serbs and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina should have the right to self-determination and this right should not be denied to anyone”.

Kmezic also noted that the Freedom Party openly supports the leader of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, and his call for a potential referendum on secession.

“Furthermore, this party is in friendly relations with the United Russia [party] of Vladimir Putin, and is openly propagating Serbian nationalist rhetoric in order to win the confidence of Serb voters with Austrian citizenship,” he said.

“This means that a change of Austrian foreign policy towards Kosovo is possible, but given that it’s been announced that negotiations on the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo are be completed in 2019, and the fact that Austria has already recognised Kosovo's independence, I do not see much room for serious obstruction,” he added.

BIRN sent questions to the Freedom Party about its position on the Balkans, but received no answers by the time of publication.

Kurz controversially appeared at an election rally for Macedonia’s embattled VMRO DPMNE party in November 2016, backing the party in that year’s extraordinary general elections in the midst of a political crisis, despite allegations of authoritarianism and mass illegal surveillance, and saying that the VMRO DPMNE was a guarantor of Macedonia's Euro-Atlantic future.

The VMRO DPMNE left office in May this year, replaced by the pro-European Social Democrats, and some of its main figures are now under investigation for alleged high-level crimes.

Despite the election incident, the Social Democrats’ leader, Zoran Zaev, congratulated Kurz last month on his victory, while a Macedonian foreign ministry statement noted that “Austria is Macedonia’s top investor and staunch supporter on its road to EU membership”.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, whose ruling Serbian Progressive Party is an associate member of the European People’s Party, also congratulated Kurz on Monday.

“I am sure that through future cooperation, we will contribute to the growing political and economic relations between our two countries, and be convinced that Serbia remains a friend and reliable partner of Austria,” Vucic said.

With Austria wielding substantial economic power in the Balkans, foreign policy developments in Vienna will be closely watched from Belgrade and all the other Balkan capitals, even though analysts believe the status quo is likely to continue.

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