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Demonstrations Dominate Vienna Ball

March 2, 2000

VIENNA, Austria (AP) _ In previous years, leading artists and heads of state were the stars of Vienna’s Opera Ball. This year, the turmoil over a far-right party’s inclusion in government has cast the event’s spotlight on demonstrators.

Tens of thousands of protesters were expected to march from the federal chancellery to the opera house, and an ``anti-fascist″ anti-ball street dance was also taking place downtown. Both were meant to protest the participation of the Freedom Party in the ruling coalition.

The Opera Ball, held in the State Opera House near the end of the winter ball season, is considered Vienna’s premier social event. Over the past decades, it has been the target of demonstrators, decrying its extravagance and elitism.

Before the Thursday evening ball, 1,000 police officers were taking up posts throughout downtown Vienna. Police formed a tight, extended ring around the opera house itself, to keep the protesters from clashing with the guests.

Even without the demonstrations, the Opera Ball 2000 has suffered from Austria’s political isolation and internal dissent, resulting from the coalition between the conservative People’s Party of Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel and the Freedom Party, directed by Joerg Haider.

Organizers had hoped to restore the aura of grandeur to the ball, after years of Hollywood stars dominating the event. Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, whose country now heads the European Union’s rotating presidency, was invited as guest of honor. Special invitations were also extended to artists and opera singers, including Israeli soprano Anat Efraty and American tenor Neil Shicoff.

Days after the coalition came to power early last month, Sampaio sent his regrets. Efraty has said she’ll attend, but Shicoff decided to stay away from the ball for ``moral″ reasons. The mayors of Frankfurt, Germany and Athens, Greece are also staying away.

Public buses and trams were rerouted and the exits to several subway stations in the area sealed off. A few police officers were to be stationed inside the opera house.

Earlier this week, Haider stepped down as the party head, but he remains on the board of directors and is considered to be in charge, as before.

Haider, who has led the Freedom Party since 1986, gained notoriety for past statements supportive of Waffen SS veterans and Adolf Hitler’s ``orderly″ employment policies. His party rose in popularity on an anti-foreigner platform.

Freedom Party participation in the coalition has resulted in sanctions against Austria by fellow EU nations and other countries.

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