The Charismatic Austrian and the Libyan Dictator

August 4th, 2010

Jörg Haider, the deceased Governor of Carinthia

Jörg Haider was born in Austria in 1950 to a shoemaker and a teacher, who were early members of the Nazi party.  Haider was a gifted student; he consistently sat at the top of his high school class, earned highest honors as an undergraduate in 1968, and graduated from law school at the University of Vienna in 1973.  While studying law Haider became the leader of the youth Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ); a party founded on the fading Pan-German movement, which was made famous by Hitler’s Nazi Germany, but withered in 1945 with the defeat of Germany in World War II.  At the time the FPÖ’s membership included anti-clerical liberals, businessmen, and pan-German nationalists, some of whom were sympathetic to Nazi policies.

Around the time Haider found his feet as a leader in the FPÖ, Muammer al-Gaddafi ascended as dictator of Libya in a coup.  Qaddafi based his new regime on a blend of Arab nationalism and a welfare state, which he called “Islamic socialism.”  The dictator spent the next ten years refining his political views, dubbing Libya a “Jamahiriyyah” or “government through the masses” in 1977.  The 1980s in Qaddafi’s Libya was marred by links to terrorism, which brought severe trade sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Escalation of military confrontations with the United States escalated to severe action by the superpower in April 1986 when a U.S. force of warplanes bombed several sites in Libya, killing or wounding several of Qaddafi’s children and narrowly missing Qaddafi himself.

That year Jörg Haider was elected to party leader of the FPÖ and two years later he was elected as Governor of Carinthia, the southernmost Austrian state.  Haider pursued economically liberal policies and attempted to rout out bilingualism in southern Carinthia, where a sizeable population of Carinthian Slovenes continue to reside.  Over the course of his campaign Haider refused to erect bilingual place-name signs for years despite a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court.

In those years Qaddafi showed a similar segregationist contempt for minority rights, isolating the Berbers, a non-Arab people of North Africa, for their language.  Qaddafi even maintained that the existence of Berbers in North Africa was a myth.

Unlike Qaddafi, Haider’s first public-political role was short-lived.  In 1991 a Socialist leader challenged Haider’s plan to reduce unemployment, calling his “forced work placement” reminiscent of Nazi policies. Haider replied, “No, they didn’t have that in the Third Reich, because in the Third Reich they had a proper employment policy, which not even your government in Vienna can manage to bring about.” The uproar that followed forced Haider to resign from his post as Governor.

Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan chief of state

Though his hold over Libya’s political system remained ironclad, Qaddafi also faced political pressure in the 1990s.  For most of the decade the world ostracized Qaddafi’s regime in response to the Lockerbie bombing on Pan Am flight 103, which killed 243 passengers on December 21, 1988.  This included actions by the UN, which sanctioned the sales of Libyan flights and oil equipment and froze some Libyan assets.

But Haider regained power in 1999, when he was reelected to the post of Governor.  Under Haider’s leadership, the FPÖ moved right, reflecting Haider’s nationalist, anti-immigration, anti-EU policies.  The next year Haider’s FPÖ formed a coalition government with Austria’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), which ignited distress in Austria and the rest of Europe, as it was reminiscent of the coalition that brought Hitler to power.  In response, Israel and the United States both recalled their ambassadors to Austria, Belgium cancelled contracts with the country, and the other 14 members of the EU cut ties and initiated sanctions.

At that time, Libya was regaining some—tenuous—trust from the world community when Qaddafi agreed to hand over the suspects, Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, in the Lockerbie bombing and to compensate the relatives of the victims of the terrorist attack.  In the agreement, the UN lifted its sanctions and the U.S. agreed to remove Libya from its list of states that sponsor terrorism.  In May of 2000, the trial of the two Libyans began. Less than a year later Megrahi was convicted of murder and three judges sentenced him to 20 years imprisonment.  Fhimah was acquitted.

On October 11, 2008 Jörg Haider died in a car crash when his car skidded out of control.  He was driving at twice the speed limit and an autopsy showed his blood-alcohol level was over three times the legal threshold.

Six months later Megrahi was released from jail on compassionate grounds, on the basis that he would die within months from prostate cancer.  Qaddafi reacted triumphantly, giving Megrahi a hero’s welcome when he arrived in Libya and thanking British and Scottish officials for releasing Megrahi.

This week, in an investigation following the death of Jörg Haider, investigators have uncovered shell companies in Liechtenstein, which once contained as much as €45 million.  It is believed the money came from donations made by Muammer Qaddafi.  Though it is known that Haider and Qaddafi were friends and had cultivated economic relations, an anonymous associate recently revealed that Qaddafi “repeatedly” made campaign donations in cash to Haider.

This connection might seem surprising.  Why did an attractive Austrian Governor with a propensity for driving expensive cars and attending lavish parties have financial ties to an entrenched North African dictator known for terrorist sympathies?  The answer is not clear.  But the history of these men nonetheless reveals a strikingly similar ideology and mirror experiences.

Despite efforts to contain their extreme policies, neither the world community, nor domestic policy-makers were able to restrain their influence.  The revelation has sparked interest in Austria to reform party donations laws, which require parties to “report donations higher than 7,260 Euros to the Federal Audit Office (RH) – but do not face consequences if they fail to do so.”  But I’m not sure Austrians are asking the right question.

Strengthening consequences of this legislation would not address the root problem—the financial secrecy enabled by Liechtenstein.  Such a law would not prevent the next Haider from setting up shell accounts and accepting political contributions from the next Qaddafi.  Or rather, at the rate Qaddafi is going, he could be the corrupt contributor all over again.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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