Austria’s new president has Estonian ancestry

Alexander Van der Bellen, whose mother was Estonian, has won Austria’s presidential election, preventing Norbert Hofer from becoming the EU’s first far-right head of state.

The election on 4 December was a re-run of May’s poll which suffered irregularities in the postal vote. Van der Bellen, who was backed by the Austrian Green Party, also won in May, narrowly beating the anti-immigrant and anti-EU candidate Hofer by just 31,000 votes.

According to the BBC, Van der Bellen hailed the result, calling it a vote for a “pro-European” Austria based on values like “freedom, equality and solidarity” backed by the majority of Austrians.

Born to an Estonian mother

Van der Bellen was born in Vienna, to an aristocratic Russian-born father of Dutch descent and an Estonian-born mother who both fled the Soviet occupation of Estonia.

The Van der Bellen family is descended from a Dutch glazier who emigrated from the Netherlands to the Russian Empire around 1763. In Russia, the Van der Bellen family belonged to the affluent gentry of the Pskov area. Alexander Van der Bellen’s namesake grandfather was a liberal politician who was head of the local government of Pskov before the bolshevik takeover in Russia during the October Revolution in 1917.

In 1919, Van der Bellen’s grandparents, father and uncles fled the bolsheviks and settled in the newly independent Republic of Estonia. The family name was spelled von der Bellen in Imperial Russia, but the family changed the spelling to Van der Bellen upon leaving Russia. In 1934, Alexander Van der Bellen’s father, also named Alexander, became an Estonian citizen, and married an Estonian woman, Alma.

When Estonia was invaded by the Soviet Union in 1940, Van der Bellen’s parents fled by train to East Prussia, Germany, where they ended up in a refugee camp. They eventually settled in Vienna, where their son was born, before again fleeing the Red Army and arriving in Tyrol, in western Austria, where Alexander Van der Bellen spent his childhood.  He has described himself as a “child of refugees”.

Van der Bellen - Amélie Chapalain

Aged 72, Van der Bellen is a retired professor of economics at the University of Vienna. He supports green (he led the Green Party from 1997-2008) and social liberal policies, and is supportive of the European Union. Some European Green politicians have already named him as the world’s first elected “green head of state”.

In Austria, the presidential job is mostly a ceremonial post.


Cover: Van der Bellen’s “thank you” poster. 

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