Alexander Van der Bellen: a refugee as president

EPA/CHRISTIAN BRUNA

Alexander Van der Bellen: a refugee as president


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Sascha (Alexander Van der Bellen) won the Austrian elections by only 31,000 votes out of 5 million, almost by default, as even people on the right of the political spectrum were frightened by the perspective of waking up with a far-right president, in the person of the FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer.

So it happened that the the deeply split Austrians narrowly elected a man (50,3% for Van der Bellen to 49,7% for Hofer) that identifies himself with yesterday’s Europe: Alexander Van der Bellen. Sounds rather Dutch? Well, he is actually Russian-Estonian, the first refugee to become president in an EU country. A multiple refugee.

Sascha (a Russian diminutive of Alexander) Van der Bellen was born in an aristocratic family, from a Russian-born father of mixed Dutch and Estonian descent and an Estonian mother, both refugees from Stalinism. His parents successively held Russian, Estonian, and Austrian citizenship.

Originally, the Van der Bellen surname is believed to originate from a Dutch merchant who emigrated to the Russian Empire around 1760. Sasha himself was at first an Estonian citizen, although Estonia was at that point under Soviet occupation, and the family were thus for practical purposes stateless. He was granted Austrian citizenship in 1958, together with his parents. Although his parents spoke Russian with each other, Alexander Van der Bellen only learned a few words of Russian. He explaines that his parents “wanted to avoid everything that indicated they were refugees.”

A former economics professor, he is very austere and very tall. Always elegantly unshaved, dry and superior, he can easily irritate. He sometimes talks maddeningly slowly, with long pauses, but when the right word comes, he hits hard. At 72, and an amateur of old Russian literature, he is not the kind to joke on Facebook or Instagram.

He is the one who led the Austrian Greens (Die Grünen) into becoming a solid political force, capable of confronting the traditional parties, the Social-Democrat SPÖ and the Christian-Conservative ÖVP, and, of course, the far right of the FPÖ, which dreams of becoming the first political force in the country. He was the main figure of the Greens for a very long time, and he shares many things with them. He has two sons from a previous marriage, and he married a much younger Green militant, a few months ago.

He campaigned as independent, but the Greens financed everything. He got 21,3 % in the first round on 24 April, coming second. But he also did some unexpected and unexplained blunders. In a public debate with Winfried Kretschmann, his fellow German Green politician who was recently reelected in the Land of Bade-Wurtemberg en Allemagne, crushing Angela Merkel’s CDU candidate, Sascha stupefied everybody by saying that Germany has 29 Länder (administrative federal entities). There are actually only 16 of them.

Campaigning, he had to convince the reluctant and conservative Austrian farmers that the Greens are actually politicians, and not just dope smokers and adepts of free love. Sasha, to be sure, supports same-sex marriage.

In order to show that he is not a candidate from abroad, he appeared on electoral posters with his dog in the remote Tyrol valley of Kaunertal where he grew up, an impressive postcard view, barred by the word « Heimat » (Fatherland). When people reproached him that he was borrowing from the right-wing, he answered that it was the far-right that was stealing from him.

On many things, he remain in total disagreement with Die Grünen: they consider him a Liberal in the European sense, that is: a right-leaning adept of the free market and opposed to state intervention. But he knows better, he is the economy professor, after all. He also calmly, slowly, reminded Austrians of their obligation to accept refugees. Some 90,000 of them came in 2015. But he also reminds the refugees of their duty to adapt to their host country. This is what he did himself, after all.

Cf. also the portrait of his far-right rival:

Norbert Hofer: The Third Man reloaded

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