Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 5
7 February 2000

Austrian news review C E N T R A L   E U R O P E A N   N E W S:
News Review for Austria
All the important news from Austria
since 31 January 2000

Magali Perrault

The week started with the birthday party held on January 30 in the Gerlitzen mountains for the fifty-year old leader of the Freedom Party and ended on Friday (February 4) with the swearing in of the new Austrian government - a coalition between the People's Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ).

The numerous reactions of the international community to the participation of the FPÖ in the government have of course been widely commented upon in Austria this week. Jörg Haider had to apologise ("I withdraw my comments with regret") for a declaration made during the weekend in which he described the Belgian government as corrupt and branded the French president Chirac "a failure and a megalomaniac."

President Thomas Klestil was openly reluctant to agree to the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition pact and made clear his doubts in an interview he gave to the magazine News: "If I were to swear in this government, I would not do it out of personal conviction, because I fear that Austria would suffer internationally."

Klestil asked the new chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (the ÖVP chairman and the former foreign minister) and Haider to sign a so-called "declaration of responsibility for Austria - Future at the centre of Europe." The declaration commits Austria to European values and democracy:

The federal government stands for respect, tolerance and understanding for all human beings regardless of their origin, religion or view of the world... The federal government works for an Austria, where xenophobia, antisemitism and racism have no place... The future of Austria lies in the deepening of the integration and the enlargement of the [European] Union...

The text closes with a clear renunciation to Austria's national-socialist past:

Austria accepts her responsibility for the tragic history of the 20th century and the revolting crimes of the national-socialist regime. Our country acknowledges the light and dark sides of its past and the deeds of all Austrians, good as well as bad, as its responsibility. Nationalism, dictatorship and intolerance brought war, xenophobia, bondage, racism and mass murder. The uniqueness and singularity of crimes of the Holocaust are an exhortation to permanent alertness against all forms of dictatorship and totalitarianism.

The government led by Schüssel (with the FPÖ Susanne Riess-Passer as deputy-chancellor) was finally sworn in by Klestil on Friday morning. The president had however previously rejected the nominations of two FPÖ politicians (including the deputy-chairman of the National Assembly, Thomas Prinzhorn). The ÖVP will head the foreign, economy, education, interior and agriculture ministries, while the FPÖ will be in charge of the finance, social affairs, defence, infrastructure and justice ministries (see composition of the government below).

The decision to do away with environment ministry was immediately criticised by the Greens.

In an unprecedented move (in the run-up to the government formation), the European Union has threatened to stop bilateral contacts with Austria and to take sanctions against the new government (including the limitation of contacts with Austrian ambassadors to "technical discussions" and the decision to stop supporting Austrian candidates for positions in international organisations).

The European commissioner for enlargement Günter Verheugen warned Austria against any attempt to veto the adhesion of Central European states and stated that a breach of the EU treaties could lead to the suspension of the country.

The United States have also declared that they will follow the EU's lead in dealing with the Austrian government and secretary of state Madeleine Albright recalled for consultations the US ambassador in Austria, Kathryn Walt-Hall. Israel has withdrawn its ambassador from Vienna, a measure which will last as long as the Freedom Party is part of the government.

The establishment of the new government has provoked massive demonstrations in Vienna, under such slogans as "Widerstand" (Resistance), "Niemals Haider" (Never Haider) or "Haider's Austria is not my Austria." The security around the headquarters of the Freedom party and the People's Party had to be heavily reinforced. On Friday, the centre of Vienna was the theatre of violent clashes, during which 25 policemen were injured. The protests also spread on Saturday outside the capital, notably in Salzburg and in Graz.

President Klestil called for moderation and, in a TV-address to the nation, asked "all political forces in our country and also our partners in the EU and in the world, to give a chance to the new government and to judge it on its work". He added: "Austria is a stable democracy, ... a good country with positive people and a future generation open to the world." He will personally make sure that no development contrary to the values of the European Union and the international community takes place in Austria.

The new chancellor Schüssel described the international criticisms as "largely exaggerated" and stated his conviction that the government will eventually be accepted by the international community. In an interview with the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, he relativised the importance of the bilateral contacts which have been broken by the EU: "it is of course not pleasant, if they do not take place anymore, but they will be resumed, if we all work together."

Haider stated during an interview to the German TV channel ARD that Austrians had been "victim but also participants" to the National-Socialist crimes. He, however, rejected the notion of collective guilt of the younger generations.

The popularity of the Freedom Party however keeps on rising and opinion polls published on Thursday (Der Standard) gave Haider's party 33 percent of the votes.

The famous Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek has forbidden the staging of her plays in the country as long as the Freedom Party remains a member of the coalition.

The composition of the new government:

Position New Incumbent Party
Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel ÖVP
Deputy-chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer FPÖ
Foreign affairs Benita Ferrero-Waldner ÖVP
Economy Martin Bartenstein ÖVP
Interior Ernst Strasser ÖVP
Education Elisabeth Gehrer ÖVP
Agriculture Wilhelm Molterer ÖVP
Finance Karl-Heinz Grasser FPÖ
Social affairs Elisabeth Sickl FPÖ
Defence Herbert Scheibner FPÖ
Infrastructure Michael Schmid FPÖ
Justice Michael Krüger FPÖ

Magali Perrault, 4 February 2000

Some Useful Websites (in German)






http://www.orf.at (Austrian TV)

http://www.apa.at (Austrian Press Agency)




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