Way over in the East

A press conference on the subject of the minimum pension took place on May 16, 2019. In the picture (from left to right) ÖVP social spokesman August Wöginger, Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and Federal Minister Beate Hartinger-Klein. © BKA

Vienna, Austria (Weltexpress). At the Vorarlberg-Liechtenstein border, the Swiss border official disappeared with my papers for a noticeable long time. When he finally came back and asked me, a Swiss citizen with a Viennese license plate, to continue my journey, I politely asked him why it was taking so long to check my documents. The man cleared his throat a little embarrassed: Vienna was “way down east”, was the reason – and since he was more of the humourless kind, I had to accept this as a serious answer.

Visitors from distant countries can hardly distinguish between Switzerland and Austria: cows jingle in lush alpine meadows, over blue lakes, a restful quiet rules beneath majestic peaks, the cities are beautiful, the food good, the trains clean and punctual. But for a Swiss like me living in Vienna for two decades, the differences are obvious: Vienna is actually quite far away to the east and baroque Austria ticks very differently from sober Switzerland. There a Yes is a Yes and a No a No. Here a yes is maybe and a no is could be: “schaumamal”. Here everyone finds his way somehow and there is always some kind of back door. The reason why people in Vienna do not understand those from Vorarlberg is not just linguistic: the Alemannic west with its immovable clarity ends at the Arlberg, then comes the gnarled, rocky intermediate world of Tyrol, then Salzburg, apparently still struggling to stand up to its Nazi past, then comes the East: a bit of the Balkans and a lot of operetta. It never gets boring here: you watch the grotesque events from your box lined in red velvet, flanked by shimmering gold caryatids, as a constantly amazed, often amused and sometimes shocked spectator.

The gentle Kurz and the cunning Strache are the opposite main actors in the tragic comedy Austria: protagonist of a classic Burgtheater drama this one, buffoon in an embarrassing farce the other. Lord Acton is once again right with his sentence that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. With a boyish innocence and tough methods, Kurz created absolute power – and was apparently absolutely corrupted by it. Strache’s power games got stuck in miserable megalomania, his corruptness a show of pitiful dilettantism.

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