Austria's Freedom Party and the MHP; selective intolerance

by P. D. Spyropoulos, Esq.

On February 3rd, Austrian President Thomas Klestil accepted a coalition government that included the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, headed by nationalist Jorg Haider. This sent shockwaves throughout an outraged West, eliciting unprecedented diplomatic sanctions against an EU country.

US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced that Washington would limit contacts with Vienna's new government. The EU imposed a "diplomatic quarantine" on Austria, replete with threats to freeze bilateral relations and boycott Austrian ski resorts. Belgium even suggested that consideration might be given to Austria's expulsion from the 15-nation EU.

In the past, Haider has applauded Nazi veterans, played down German war crimes, and advanced what many consider to be a racist anti-immigrant platform. Why then should the West's reaction be so troubling?

Only two months earlier at Helsinki, the EU granted candidate status to a government co-headed by a right-wing extremist group that makes Austria's nationalists look like boy scouts by comparison.

The Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, more than doubled its votes in parliamentary elections last April and emerged as the second-largest party in Turkey. MHP has been described by Western journalists alternatively as "ultra right-wing" and "neo-fascist".

In Hostage to History, Christopher Hitchens notes that in the 1970's MHP's "youth commandos were held responsible for thousands of murders and bombings in Turkey". Through the use of death squads, bombings and other violence, the MHP's paramilitary arm, the Grey Wolves, is credited with having killed thousands of public officials, journalists, students, lawyers, labor organizers, social democrats, left-wing activists, ethnic Kurds and other dissidents who opposed their racially-inspired nationalist vision.

While the Grey Wolves are known throughout Europe as one of the largest and most violent terrorist organizations in the world, MHP gained international notoriety when a Grey Wolves terrorist, Mehmet Ali Agca, attempted to assassinate Pope John Paul II in St. Peter's Square in May of 1981.

In 1996, Turkish deputy Sedat Bucak revealed that Grey Wolves chief Abdullah Catli spearheaded a campaign of arson fires that ravaged Greek islands during summer tourist seasons. Catli's death during a notorious 1996 car crash exposed close ties between the Grey Wolves, the Turkish underworld, and the government.

While the MHP instituted reforms to improve its image after its founder, Colonel Alparslan Turkes, died in 1997, the party's positions regarding the repression of Kurds and other minorities, its belligerence towards neighboring democracies Greece and Armenia, and its expansionist ambitions for "one Turkish world, from the Adriatic Sea until the Chinese Wall" continue to dominate MHP's core beliefs.

A picture, for example, still hangs in MHP's headquarters with the slogan "Those who lift a hand against the Turk will die like dogs".

In a threat directed towards EU-member Greece, Turkey's new Defense Minister, MHP's Sabahattin Cakmakoglu, declared that "territories, islands and islets that belonged to the Ottoman Empire and were lost during war when later countries emerged, and which are not named in post-war agreements, should belong to their original owner."

Even Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit's wife, a deputy chairwoman of her husband's Democratic Left Party that entered into the ruling coalition with MHP, stated that she was "deeply suspicious" about "the MHP's violent past".

In stark contrast to the maelstrom that resulted in Haider's decision to step down as head of Austria's Freedom Party on February 28th, MHP's accession into Turkey's ruling coalition last May was met with silence by the West.

Arguably, the weight of WWII history, and lesser expectations of developing Turkey, account for part of this inconsistency.

Yet, while Austria was by and large partner to Nazi Germany's exterminationist regime, Turkey's recent history is also tainted by genocide.

In what is widely recognized as the 20th Century's first genocide, the modern Turkish state systematically exterminated 1.5 million Armenians. Genocides, pogroms and the ethnic cleansing of Turkey's Armenian, Greek and Assyrian minorities reduced Turkey's Christian population from 4,500,000 at the beginning of this century to less than 150,000 today.

Whereas EU-member Austria is expected to live up to Western democratic ideals, a different yardstick is applied to Turkey -- a country plagued with a host of problems including separatist strife, Islamic fundamentalism, and a state-controlled economy.

For some, this relativism might have held water had Turkey been a far-off third-world country on the fringes of US and European geopolitics. The sobering reality is that Turkey, a long-time NATO ally, has now achieved EU-candidate status and is knocking at Europe's door. Yet unlike Austria, which has established deeply-rooted democratic institutions, Turkey's constricted democracy continues to languish under military control.

Turkey is among the worst human rights violators on earth, where torture and extra-judicial killings remain a part of its political landscape. For the fifth consecutive year the Turkish state leads the world in imprisoned journalists ahead of China and Syria, and has recently admitted to using death squads to kill as many as 14,000 people since the 1980's.

Most of the 35,000 fatalities arising from Turkey's war against its Kurdish separatists have been Kurds, and Human Rights Watch attributes the vast majority of civilian deaths to Turkish troops. According to a State Department report, up to 3 million Kurds have been ethnically cleansed by Turkey's military. In 1974, Turkish forces cleansed 200,000 Cypriots after invading the north of Cyprus, which Turkey continues to occupy in violation of UN resolutions and international law.

Although the European Court of Human Rights has ordered the Turkish government to compensate Greek Cypriot Titina Loizidou for the loss of her property seized during Turkey's invasion, Turkey remains the only member of the 40-nation Council of Europe to refuse compliance with a compensation order from its human rights court -- a breach that could lead to Turkey's expulsion from the Council.

Yet nowhere is the incongruity of the West's selective condemnation of the emerging specter of neo-fascism more apparent than in the Israeli reaction.

Upon hearing of Austria's new government, Israel furiously recalled its ambassador from Vienna and warned that it was prepared to sever diplomatic relations with Austria. Yet Israel recently escalated its alliance with Turkey, a partnership which has included zealous pro-Turkish lobbying efforts by prominent Jewish-American organizations including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress.

Whereas Jorg Haider has never denied the Holocaust and has repudiated past comments minimizing Nazi crimes, the Turkish state continues to spend millions in the US and Europe to deny the Armenian Genocide.

The moral absurdity of the children of the survivors of one genocide collaborating with the perpetrators of another is compounded when looking at the MHP's Nazi roots.

While Haider's connection to neo-fascist and anti-Semitic ideology is obscure and largely implied, the MHP's connection is explicit. In his book on the resurgence of neo-fascism, The Beast Reawakens, Martin Lee recounts that MHP founder "Turkes and his revanchist cohorts had been enthusiastic supporters of Hitler during World War II. 'The Turkish race above all others' was their Nazi-like credo. In a similar vein, Grey Wolf literature warned of a vast Jewish-Masonic-Communist conspiracy and its newspapers carried ads for Turkish translations of Nazi texts." During the early part of WWII, Turkes and his fellow nationalists were directly financed by Germany's Nazi government, and Turkes' title was Basbug, meaning Fuhrer.

That Israel is now condemning Austria while advocating on behalf of a government aligned with a fascist organization rooted in anti-Semitic ideology should elicit far more alarm than the accession of the Freedom Party itself.

Ironically, the West could learn a valuable lesson from the very person it has branded a pariah. As part of the agreement to include the Freedom Party in Austria's ruling coalition, Haider signed a pledge urging "permanent alertness against all forms of dictatorship and totalitarianism."

Given our selective tolerance of intolerance, one wonders whether the West will finally learn from its painful past, and take heed of Haider's warning.

P. D. Spyropoulos is the Executive Director of the American Hellenic Media Project (AHMP), a non-profit think-tank created to address bias in the media and encourage independent, ethical and responsible journalism. Commentaries, letters and opinion-editorials by AHMP have been published in The Baltimore Sun, Billboard, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, The Daily Republican, The Daily Telegraph, The Dallas Morning News, The Detroit News, The Economist, El Nuevo Herald (Miami), The Financial Times, Forbes Global, The Fresno Bee, The Globe and Mail, The Irish Times, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, The Miami Herald, The National Review, New York Newsday, The New York Post, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Orlando Sentinel, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Plain Dealer, The South China Morning Post, The St. Petersburg-Times (Fla.), The Star-Ledger (NJ), The Tampa Tribune, The Toronto Sun, USA Today, The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and World Press Review

American Hellenic Media Project PO Box 1150 New York, NY 10028-0008

Posted: April 25, 2000

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