Austria faces a stark choice for its head of state: Green Party professor Alexander Van der Bellen or Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party, who won a decisive victory in April’s first round of voting
“The current presidential elections in Austria are a completely new move. The candidates traditionally come from the two governmental parties, but this time their representatives did not succeed in the first round of the election. The background to this rift between candidates Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer is the current political situation with the up and coming “Freedom Party of Austria”, which is without a doubt a right-wing party. This is why their candidate, Norbert Hofer, is trying to appear like a softy. Nobody knows what position he might have after the elections,” says Erhard Busek in an exclusive interview for this special CorD “Partners” edition covering the Austrian-Serbian bilateral relationship.
Could Hoffer’s possible victory lead to a change in the course of Austrian foreign policy?
For the moment, Hofer does not favour Austria’s exit from the European Union, but nobody knows what will really happen if he is elected. Migrants and tolerance is a general debate in Austria, and Hofer is not alone in being critical with regard to migrants and also limited tolerance.
Considering a large number of Austrian voters with Serbian origins, who do you think will be their favourite in the election?
The majority of Austrian Citizens with Serbian origins are traditionally in favour of “The Freedom Party of Austria”. The head of “The Freedom Party of Austria”, Strache, was always against the independence of Kosovo and therefore he was also campaigning for Serbian votes in a very direct way. It is also interesting that this party shows some sympathy for Vladimir Putin.
Have you changed your stance – expressed back in the year 2000 – that Kosovo should be independent?
I did not change my mind.
How do you see Serbia’s EU accession process?
The prospects of Serbia joining the European Union are really positive. I think it is really moving forward because the government in Belgrade is doing a lot to move the country closer to the European Union.
How would you assess current regional relations in the Western Balkans?
Regional Cooperation, in general, has to grow in Southeast Europe. Not all opportunities are being used to achieve better results in the region by creating more cooperation. For example, in infrastructure and in the economy, and in cooperation that doesn’t relate only to the migrant issue. The friction you are asking about is not very helpful, but it is always the responsibility of both parties.
You are coordinator of the Southeast Cooperative Initiative (SECI), which was initiated by the U.S. as a means of supporting the Dayton Peace Accords. Twenty years after its signing, how would you evaluate the functioning of this agreement?
I was always very critical of the Dayton agreement because the arrangements concerning the statute of Bosnia-Herzegovina are not sustainable. The differences between Republika Srpska and the Federation are obvious. The international community is always waiting for a move within B-H itself, but obviously there is nothing really happening. The move-in Republika Srpska towards an independence referendum was not really helpful.
Many consider that Serbia’s EU accession prospects are rather vague, while the Western Balkan region is no longer in the EU’s focus. What is your assessment of this issue?
For the moment, the European Union has a lot of internal problems that make it more difficult to determine a timeframe for the European perspective, but Brussels is still interested, as are some member states in particular, like Germany and Austria. This is shown by the Berlin Process, which created some forward momentum in the last two years.
From the Austrian perspective, how do you see the future of the EU? Are you concerned when German Foreign Minister Steinmeier says that there is a fear that the EU could meet its end?
At present, there are a lot of opinions regarding the future of the European Union. I think it would be better to sit together and create more things in common because the problems are also common and nobody is able to solve them individually. It should be considered that Europe represents only seven per cent of the world’s population but that it still accounts for more than 20 per cent of the world’s economy. Out of this, we have to do a lot!
Do you believe that the migrant crisis has been brought under control, and what does the inability to reach a consensus regarding steps to combat it say about the EU?
The migrant crisis is still not resolved. We have learned a lot, but border control, for example, has not yet really been ensured. This has to be done jointly, because of the question of how to control the borders of Greece, with such a great number of islands?
How would you rate general bilateral relations between Austria and Serbia?
In general, relations between Serbia and Austria are quite good. Current foreign minister Sebastian Kurz always expresses some friendly statements, but it really depends on what we do for different countries. In the case of Serbia, Austrian foreign policy and the business community are still very much engaged.
For the moment, the European Union has a lot of internal problems that make it more difficult to determine a timeframe for the European perspective, but Brussels is still interested, as are some member states in particular, like Germany and Austria
Alongside very good economic cooperation, Austria has also engaged in helping Serbia with the reform of education, by proposing the model of dual education. Given that you personally participated in the reform of the education system, what do you think of that model?
The system of the dual education model is really important. It represents one of the possibilities for the economy to move forward, but it is not an isolated field. It also has to be implemented in both school and university education. We are trying to contribute, for example, via the Centre of Advanced Studies, now based in Rijeka, which promotes cooperation for the region and is proceeding quite well.
The dual education model is not in favour of a cheap labour force, but rather higher quality among educated people, which enables them to compete as business heavyweights!
You made an appearance earlier this year as a lecturer at the Faculty for Media and Communications (FMK), where you spoke about the media as a prerequisite for greater democracy. How would you rate the media scene in the region?
The situation of the media – not only in the region, but in general – is for the moment really horrible, but a free media is a precondition for more democracy and, as such, we have a lot to do in this direction. I am very much engaged in fighting on this, but the real dangers are in other countries more than in Southeast Europe.
On the other side, media investments from the West are not really a success story in the long run. I think more transparency is generally necessary here, but not only in this region, rather across the whole of Europe.
In the region, there is an award bearing your name. It is intended for journalists and media experts who contribute to improving understanding in Europe. Is the role of the individual in today’s world undermined or exaggerated?
For the moment, we have tough general discussions on this. The right understanding of the role of media and democracy is lacking. So far, I am supporting this with the Media Award, but also with a lot of training activities and public discussions.