Far-right targets Austria's first refugee minister

4 min

Vienna (AFP)

Less than a week after Austria's new conservative-Green coalition took power, it has already become a target for far-right supporters, who have railed against the country's first minister with a refugee background.

Justice Minister Alma Zadic, who was born in Bosnia and fled the wars that tore apart Yugoslavia in the 1990s with her family at the age of 10, has faced a wave of social media abuse -- and even death threats.

The abuse has often appeared under posts from politicians from the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) -- a junior coalition partner until May -- revealing racist attitudes some say were fostered by the party during its time in office.

"A criminal Muslim woman becoming justice minister. Sharia (Islamic law) is coming soon," read one such contribution.

In response Zadic, of the Green Party, has received support from across the political spectrum.

Conservative chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who also headed the coalition with the FPOe, vowed on Thursday to "fight online hate -- whether from the left, Islamists or the right".

"Alma Zadic and all others who are affected by this have my full support!" he tweeted.

- 'Anything but pleasant' -

Zadic grew up in Vienna's multicultural Favoriten district.

She told the Kurier newspaper she did not speak a word of German when she arrived: "The teachers didn't know what to do with me.

"My experiences were anything but pleasant for an ambitious young girl."

Now, at 35 years old, she has reached the cabinet.

Austria has taken far longer to reach the milestone of minority representation at this level than many other Western countries.

As in neighbouring Germany, Austrian society traditionally saw immigrants as "guest workers", according to sociologist Kenan Guengoer, who serves on an official expert panel on integration.

Historically, they were viewed as "people who are here temporarily and would go back", Guengoer says.

Both "guest workers" and refugees made up the forerunners of today's population of more than 530,000 who have roots in the former Yugoslavia.

But the reception to Zadic hints at other reasons that progress in Austria has taken so long.

- 'Overachiever' -

Austria's Bosnian community is considered to be among the best integrated, according to journalist and former teacher Melisa Erkurt -- who was herself born in Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo.

Erkurt describes Zadic as "an overachiever".

After studying law in Vienna and at Columbia University in New York, Zadic gained experience at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia before going on to work for an international law firm.

She will need all of her skills to navigate a brief where the two coalition partners are expected to clash.

But some in the far-right FPOe, which left government after being engulfed in a corruption scandal, were unimpressed by her CV.

Their main gripe was a civil case in which Zadic was ordered to pay compensation to a student from a right-wing fraternity who had been photographed making a gesture some interpreted as a Hitler salute.

Zadic shared the image on Twitter with the words: "No tolerance for neo-Nazis, fascists and racists."

The student in question insisted he was simply waving to friends. Zadic is appealing against the decision.

- Cautionary tale -

According to Erkurt, Zadic could serve as a much-needed role model for young ethnic minority Austrians whom she says have not traditionally been encouraged to aim for positions of power.

"I work with many young girls and I can say to a 14-year-old girl called Fatima: 'You really can achieve anything in Austria, it's not just a cliche,'" says Erkurt.

But at the same time, she says Zadic's treatment could be a cautionary tale.

Zadic has been targeted "despite the fact she speaks perfect German, she has a doctorate, she doesn't wear a headscarf".

"In other words, you can do everything 'right' in Austria but still be met with racism," Erkurt says.

Indeed, in defending Zadic the Green party felt it necessary to clarify she did not practise any religion.

Kurz also came in for criticism after he mistakenly said she had been convicted of a criminal offence then later tweeted a clarification, adding: "I know and value her and think she is qualified."

Florian Klenk, editor of the left-leaning Falter magazine, accused him of offering a "half-hearted" defence his minister.

Kurz's fate is "connected to Zadic's future", Klenk wrote, adding: "She has become a symbol for this government."