On Monday 1 May, Jörg Haider officially left the chairmanship of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) to the vice-chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer. The 25th congress of the FPÖ hence saw the departure of the man who had been elected leader of the movement in 1986 and (controversially) transformed the party into a major political force.
Haider's quiet retirement to governor of the Land of Carinthia is however considered unlikely by many observers, who pointed out that Haider could also use his (official) position as "a simple member" of the party as a way to criticise the government more freely.
The 39-year old Susanne Riess-Passer has been nicknamed "King Cobra" because of her sometimes ruthless approach to politics. She was elected with 91.5 percent of the votes and immediately pledged to maintain the continuity of the party policies: "The FPÖ is still the party of Jörg Haider. This party would not be what it is if he was not here". Riess-Passer denounced the political sanctions imposed by the country's fourteen EU partner-states and talked about the "new imperialism" of the European Union.
The traditional May Day demonstration of the Social-Democratic Party (SPÖ) in Vienna this year turned into a march against the People's Party-Freedom Party governmental coalition. The chairman of the party Alfred Gusenbauer declared, referring to the simultaneous FPÖ meeting in Klagenfurt: "the betrayers of the workers are meeting in Klagenfurt and the representatives of the workers are meeting in Vienna". Gusenbauer described Riess-Passer as "Haider's puppet" with a strong anti-European outlook. An estimated 100,000 people participated to the SPÖ rally.
The People's Party (ÖVP) had organised a roundtable on what it called the "day of the new labour." Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel took the opportunity to argue that a "further liberalisation and deregulation of the markets in Austria" was necessary. He also highlighted the importance of the development of the information technology sector for the country's economy.
In an interview for the newspaper Kurier Wednesday, Schüssel criticised Gusenbauer for not making clear the commitment of the Social-Democrats to an end of the sanctions. He dismissed as a "legend" the claim that the ÖVP was benefiting from the sanctions. During a press conference on Wednesday, the chancellor firmly rejected the idea of the country withdrawing from the European Union but saw a referendum on the sanctions as one of many possible options. An extraordinary council of ministers on Friday was due to address the issue and prepare a governmental strategy to attempt to bring about a speedy end to the sanctions.
The idea of a referendum was criticised by President Thomas Klestil, the Austrian European Commissioner for Agriculture Franz Fischler as well as by the Social-Democratic and Green opposition parties.
On Sunday, Maria Schaumayer, the special commissioner appointed by the government to deal with the reparations for workers interned in hard and slave labour camps during the Second World War, announced that Austria and the Austrian government could pay a sum of about AUS 6 billion.
She rejected as "absurb" the claims of US lawyer Ed Fagan, who contends that Austria should pay AUS 260 billion in reparations, adding that such a sum would constitute one tenth of the Austrian gross domestic product. Schaumayer added that about 150,000 survivors were likely to be concerned by the measures and expressed her hopes that the compensation schemes could be in operation by the summer. Negotiations have started with the representatives of the four parliamentary parties - the ÖVP, the FPÖ, the SPÖ and the Greens.
From Monday to Wednesday the Foreign Minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner (ÖVP), was in Georgia in her capacity as president of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Austria holds the presidency of this institution for the year 2000 and Ferrero-Waldner met the Georgian leadership in Tbilisi for discussions about the Chechen conflict and the continuing territorial disputes in Abkhazia and Ossetia.
Magali Perrault, 5 May 2000
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