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Global glare won't dissuade Austria

The president approves a government that includes the far-right Freedom Party, despite objections.

President Thomas Klestil approved a new coalition government Thursday that includes the far-right Freedom Party, plunging Austria into its worst diplomatic crisis since World War II and jeopardizing its relations with the European Union and the United States.

The EU moved to impose an unprecedented diplomatic quarantine against a member state. Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency, announced that Austria's 14 EU allies would carry out their threat to freeze bilateral relations with Vienna and curtail the role of Austria's ambassadors in EU capitals as of today, when the new government is sworn in.

Klestil acknowledged his decision could damage Austria's image abroad but said October's elections left him with no choice but to accept a coalition of the conservative People's Party and the anti-immigrant Freedom Party led by Joerg Haider. The two parties won 104 seats in the 183-seat national Parliament.

Klestil will swear in People's Party leader Wolfgang Schuessel as chancellor today, a spokesman said.

The president's formal consent was granted after Schuessel and Haider agreed to sign "a declaration of European values" denouncing Austria's Nazi past and pledging to fight "xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism."

Before Klestil announced his decision, he rejected two Freedom Party Cabinet ministers proposed by Haider. As expected, Haider will not join the Cabinet out of concern that this would only fuel international condemnation.

Anti-Haider protesters took to the streets of Vienna for a second straight night, though in much smaller numbers.

The declaration, drawn up by Klestil, was an attempt to placate the EU, the United States and other governments that threatened to isolate Austria if the Freedom Party joins the government. But it appeared to do little to mute the international alarm and outrage over Austria's decision.

Israel recalled its ambassador from Austria on Thursday and warned it is prepared to sever diplomatic relations. France canceled consultations with Vienna about European defense. Belgium urged a boycott of Austrian ski resorts and suggested it may soon be time to consider the expulsion of Austria from the 15-nation EU.

Clinton administration officials declined to spell out what concrete measures, if any, the United States is prepared to take in response to Klestil's action. That is partly because they fear that efforts to isolate Austria could backfire by playing into the hands of Haider's supporters on the far right.

At the same time, State Department spokesman James Foley said Austria will be "under an international microscope" once the new government takes shape. "We are going to be watching very, very closely how events unfold in the coming weeks, days and months."

The fear that Haider's ascendancy may legitimize xenophobic far-right movements in other European countries contributed to the decision Monday by 14 EU governments to downgrade relations with Austria, a fellow EU member, if the Freedom Party enters the government.

As Austria's next-door neighbor and cultural cousin, Germany is particularly troubled by the breakthrough of the far-right in Austria at a time when Germany's mainstream conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union, is in danger of imploding because of the political finance scandal surrounding former Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Kohl's successor Gerhard Schroeder warned that if Christian Democrats collapse, a political vacuum could develop that may encourage the appearance of a Haider-like figure in Germany who could exploit resentment toward immigrants and dismay with the course of European integration.

Haider capitalized on similar popular sentiment in Austria as he led his party to its surprise second place showing in the Oct. 3 parliamentary election in which it took 27 percent of the national vote.

Haider draws much of his support from disaffected blue-collar workers who have grown disenchanted with the Social Democrats and become worried about their employment prospects if cheap-wage laborers from Eastern Europe continue to enter Austria.

Haider, who will remain as governor of Carinthia province, insisted that the outside world had a grossly distorted view despite his past comments excoriating foreign immigrants and EU expansion plans and praising Nazi veterans.

"Nobody has to fear anything in Austria," Haider said. "We will try to convince the international community that the new government is a reform government."