Russian President Vladimir Putin made an official visit to Austria between 8 and 9 February. The visit was marked by talks of Austria's security policy and emerging debates on the alpine republic's neutrality.
President Putin stated that Russia will respect Austria's decision in any case and made it clear that Russia had no objections at all to Austria's participation to the European integration process. However, he argued forcefully that neutrality had brought great benefits to Austria since 1955 and that these benefits could be compromised by adhesion to a military alliance such as NATO. This is an option put forward by the People's-Freedom Party coalition.
The Austrian President Thomas Klestil highlighted the development of economic links between the two countries. However, Austrian Defence Minister Herbert Scheibner somewhat dampened Russian hopes for further economic cooperation when he announced in an interview with the Austrian daily Die Presse that the Austrian air force will not buy Russian MIGs. According to the minister, the MIGs are cheaper but incompatible with Western European technical standards.
On Friday afternoon, President Putin travelled to Tyrol to attend the final days of the world ski championships in St-Anton. He was also due to hold further talks with Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and possibly Slovak President Rudolf Schuster, Slovene Prime Minister Janesz Drnovšek and the Lithuanian President Vaira Vike-Freiberger.
On the neutrality issue, an opinion poll published on Monday in the newsmagazine Profil showed that 69 percent of Austrians consider the republic's neutrality to be positive and want it to be upheld. Twenty-six percent disagreed and five percent had no opinion.
Confusion in the Freedom Party about social security
The Freedom Party (FPÖ) appears to be in disarray over the issue of the planned reform of Austria's social security and healthcare service. The FPÖ Social Affairs Minister Herbert Haupt first stated on Thursday that the possibility for an increase in social taxes could not be excluded but this was immediately criticised by three leading figures of the party: Vice-Chancellor and Party Chairwoman Susanne Riess-Passer, Governor of Carinthia (and former party leader) Jörg Haider and the party's leading candidate for the regional elections in Vienna next month, Helene Partik-Pable.
On Friday, Haupt slightly changed his approach to the issue and argued that there was no need for a tax increase, because, according to him, a lot of savings within the system could be made. The Social Democratic and Green opposition contended that Haupt's sudden change of mind shows that he is a faithful party member rather than a responsible minister.
The Czech nuclear plant at Temelín is again at the centre of a controversy between Austria and the Czech Republic after some Austrian anti-nuclear activists decided to plan new blockades on the border of the two states in Upper-Austria. scheduled for 16 and 18 February. Several Austrian groups claim that the Czech government has not respected the terms of the so-called Melk agreement signed between the two countries at the end of last year which imposed an international control over the safety of the nuclear reactor.
The Czech Prime Minister Miloš Zeman has replied that the Melk agreement compelled the Austrian authorities to guarantee the free circulation of people and goods between the two countries, thus rendering further blockades illegal.
And in other news...
- A debate on how to finance the costs of measures designed to prevent the spread of BSE disease in Austria has started. The Chamber of Agriculture and some representatives of the farming industry have suggested that a one percent rise in the value-added tax (VAT) on food products (currently 10 percent) could be a solution—an idea strongly rejected by others as putting a heavy burden on the consumers. However, as a consequence of the BSE crisis it was announced this week that Austrian organic and "bio" farmers can expect an increase in turnover of 60 percent and a threefold increase of their exports in the next four years.
A public opinion poll published by the Austrian daily newspaper Kurier confirmed the lukewarm attitude of Austrians towards EU eastwards enlargement. Only 25 percent are in favour of enlargement, 16 are against it, and the majority (55 percent) would agree to the accession of Austria's neighbours only if transition periods are imposed as far as the free movement of labour is concerned.
Michael Glos, a deputy from the Bavarian CSU at the German Bundestag (Parliament), was decorated on Thursday in Berlin by Austria as a tribute to his fight against the sanctions imposed last year on Austria by its fourteen EU partners. Markus Lutterotti, the Austrian ambassador in Germany, praised Glos's contribution to the friendship between Austria and Bavaria.
A British soldier who was participating in a British army bobsleigh activity in Austria died of head injuries in Innsbruck on Saturday 3 February after a gang of six or seven men attacked him outside a night-club.
Magali Perrault, 9 February 2001
ORF (Austrian TV)
APA (Austrian Press Agency)
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