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Austria: Its Role in Europe,
and in the Balkan War

By Flora Lewis

(The International Herald Tribune, 16 June 1995)

KREMS, Austria -- Austria, one of the three new members of the EuropeanUnion, is eager to exert as much influence as it can. It mattersbecause the small, neutral country had a critical if little-known rolein what became the tragedy of Yugoslavia.
The public voted overwhelmingly just a year ago to join the EU. The endof the Cold War and the Soviet collapse removed Moscow's long-standingblock on Austria's foreign policy decisions, as it did for Finland. Butalready opinion has soured. According to polls, only 40 percent saythey would favor accession if the vote were held now.
This is written off as post-honeymoon blues by informed Austriancommentators, who say that expectations were overblown; they areconvinced that the country will settle down comfortably in its newstatus.
The government has firm ideas on the kind of Europe it wants. Thesewere presented at a weekend meeting here.
Austria favors more integratlon, a strong commission and a strongEuropean Parliament, a hard common currency, and qualified majorityvoting, but in a way that preserves the disproportionate weight of thesmall countries. At the same time, it wants assured and rapid inclusionof former Communist countries to the east. Like Germany, it doesn'twant to remain on the EU's eastem border, but to be in the middle again;in short, both deepening and broadening, to use EU jargon.
So it is logical - but there 's the rub - that it plans to push forfaster progress to the established goal of a common European foreign andsecurity policy. But Austria has already contributed much more thanacknowledged to Europe's most signal foreign policy disarray andfailure, largely hecause of intricate domestic coalition politics.
As fau back as 1986, Austrian officials and nongovernmentalorganizations were taking part in the moves that led to the breakup ofYugoslavia, and then to unending war.
Some focused on Slovenia, an Alpine region, which they considered moresuited to the European community than to a Slav federation. Others, andmost particularly Alois Mock, focused on Roman Catholic Croatia. Mr.Mock has just stepped down from his long-term position as leader of theconservative People's Party and foreign minister, which he used toencourage the Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman to expect Europe's embraceonce independence was declared.
He was at the Krems conference, and I asked him about his reasoning andhis role. His answers were evasive. But other officials consider hehad a major influence on Mr. Tudjman's decision. In May 1991, inZagreb, I was told that Croatia was not worried by Europe's disapprovingnoises at the prospects of Yugoslav disintegration.
"It's only diplomatic lip service," Mr. Tudjman said. "We've beenassured they'll come around once it's done."
Chancellor Franz Vranitsky of Austria was aware of Mr. Mock'sbehind-the-scenes campaign in Croatia, and told me he opposed it. Buthe didn't do it publicly or effectively, because Austria has thestrongest extreme-right anti-foreigner party in Europe. The chancellorfeared that offending Mr. Mock might lead him to break thesocialist-conservative coalition in favor of a conservative-far rightone, excluding Mr. Vranitsky's party.
The really decisive point at which the Yugoslav war could have beenavoided was then, before Slovenia and Croatia proclaimed independence.Indeed, the war started immediately after. When Germany insisted onrecognizing Croatia in December 1991 , it argued that that would stopfighting in Croatia, which it did, temporarily. Predictably, thefighting broke out in Bosnia the following spring.
Austria has a more immediate interest in the area, which was part of theAustro-Hungarian Empire, than does Germany, now erroneously suspected ofpushing for dominance there. Senior Austrian diplomats admit, but inprivate, that what outside responsibility there is for the war belongsto their country.
The point is not to affix blame but to clarify history before itcongeals as conventional truth that will affect future EU efforts atcommon foreign policy. There will be new disputes to confront, perhapsall the more because of the dreadful Yugoslav example.
Straightening the record of what happened might help prevent similarterrible miscalculations. Austria, with its broad history in CentralEurope and the Balkans, can make important contributions to a structureof continental peace. But all the countries involved need to transcendnostalgia and shortsighted manipulation of foreign policy for domesticpolitics.