The debate about the bilateral political sanctions reached a turning-point this week after the publication by the newspaper Der Standard [traditionally close to the opposition Social Democrats] of an article claiming that the Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP) had rejected an offer of the European Commission to end the sanctions.
According to Der Standard, Schüssel has been approached by an envoy of the European Commission with a proposal to send to Austria a team of independent observers who would draft a report about political developments in the country - a process which could then have led to the lifting of sanctions.
The newspaper notes that Schüssel's refusal is likely to have angered countries such as Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg and Spain whuch have been lobbying for some time in favour of putting an end to Austria's isolation since it contradicts earlier suggestions from Schüssel and Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner that a report could be a valid "exit strategy."
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The second big debate this week concerned the price of petrol after Jörg Haider (FPÖ) announced on Monday that petrol would be sold at 12 per cent less in the Land of Carinthia than in the rest of Austria. Haider, the governor of Carinthia, has long complained about the high price of petrol in Austria. He stated that he had secured a deal with an unnamed supplier which would allow cheaper petrol to be distributed throughout Carinthia via the local chain Rudolf. The news, which came less than a week after it emerged Haider had met Libyan President Muammar Al Gaddafi during a visit to Tripoli at the beginning of May, was quickly surrounded by controversy. The opposition in the regional parliament accused Haider of having taken the decision without consultations and without having the mandate and prerogatives to do so.
On Thursday, the largest petrol supplier in Austria, OMV, reacted to this development when it decided, after a meeting with Minister of Economy Martin Bartenstein (ÖVP), to cut down its prices by 10 groschen per liter. BP and Shell Austria have so far failed to follow OMV's lead.
Reform of the pension schemes figured on top of the government's agenda this week, following the failure of negotiations with social partners and trade unions. The Council of Ministers decided on Tuesday to go ahead with its project to increase by one year and a half the age of early retirement and confirmed its wish to implement these plans from 1 October 2000. The opposition and the trade unions have threatened to contest the constitutionality of the reforms in front of the Constitutional court.
The Foreign Minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner (ÖVP), visited Central Asia this week in her capacity as General Secretary of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) [Austria holds the presidency of this institution for the year 2000]. She travelled to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, where she held talks with the Presidents of the two states.
The first bilateral agreements following the so-called "reconciliation conference" of 16 May are said to be ready. The conference formalised Austria's decision to offer reparations to wartime slave labourers. The first bilateral agreements are to be signed by Belarus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Russia and Ukraine as soon as the financial trust in charge of the payments can be officially set up.
There are rumours of an emerging split within the Freedom Party. The split is said to be between ministers of the Party in Vienna (especially Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser and perhaps even Vice-Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer) and the allies of the former Chairman of the Party, Jörg Haider. Peter Westenthaler, the leader of the movement's parliamentary group, argued in an interview for the daily Kurier on Thursday: "there is only one irreplaceable politician in Austria - and it is Jörg Haider." He added diplomatically that this should not be interpreted as a sign of lack of confidence in the current and recently-elected leader of the Party, Riess-Passer.
Finally, the smoking habits of young Austrians were the subject of a survey published this week which showed that one out of two Austrians under the age of 30 was a smoker.
Magali Perrault, 2 June 2000
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