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Austria/Czech Republic: War Of Words Heats Up Between Vienna And Prague

  • Jolyon Naegele

Prague, 21 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Austro-Czech rivalry has been a recurring theme at least since the 1278 Battle of Marchfeld near Vienna, when Czech King Premysl Otakar II was mortally wounded while fighting the Habsburg army.

Nearly three and a half centuries later, in 1620, the Czechs fled the Habsburg-led army at the Battle of White Mountain, resulting in nearly three centuries of Austrian domination of the Czech Lands. That period witnessed the dispossession of the Czech aristocracy, and by the mid-18th century the Czech language had virtually disappeared from public life -- a trend saved only by a national revival movement.

Vienna gave Prague short shrift in establishing the dual monarchy with Hungary in 1867 while maintaining the Czech lands as Austrian provinces. Many Austrians to this day blame the Czechs for the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire when they seceded and formed the Republic of Czecho-Slovakia in the final days of World War I.

Many Austrians -- especially those living in Vienna and Lower Austria -- can trace their roots to the former crown lands of Bohemia, Moravia, and Austrian Silesia which now constitute the Czech Republic. While similarities exist -- in heritage, lifestyles, cuisine, and inferiority complexes over being a "small nation" -- different levels of economic development and traditional animosities have never vanished completely.

The latest scuffle, however, is a war of words connected as much to a relatively new problem -- the Czech nuclear power plant at Temelin -- as it is to traditional antagonisms and Austrian domestic politics.

Temelin has been an issue in the Austrian news media for two decades, ever since communist Czechoslovakia announced plans to build its third nuclear power plant some 60 kilometers from the Austrian border at Temelin in southern Bohemia. The first two (Dukovany in Moravia and Jaslovske Bohunice in Slovakia) were built even closer to the Austrian frontier. Austria was deferential toward Czechoslovak nuclear construction, and even built its own nuclear power plant at Zwentendorf on the Danube, some 45 kilometers from the Czech border. But in a 1978 referendum, a slim majority of Austrians voted in favor of not bringing the plant on line.

Austria began lobbying against Temelin only after the collapse of communist rule and the dissolution of the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, when Prague decided to proceed with the completion of Temelin with the addition of U.S. technology from Westinghouse.

Two years ago, Austria became the first-ever EU member state to be the target of a boycott drive, after the country's ultra-right Freedom Party, led by Joerg Haider, became a junior coalition partner of the Austrian People's Party. Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman's government was the first non-EU member state to back the boycott.

As the boycott ended several months later with Haider's departure from the Freedom Party chairmanship, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's coalition government launched a populist campaign against Temelin. The move was as much an effort to rebuild the public support it had lost during the EU boycott as to raise nuclear safety concerns. In a series of talks held between December 2000 and November of last year, Zeman and Schuessel worked to iron out most of their differences over Temelin's security.

However, the Freedom Party immediately rejected the accord and launched a petition drive in an effort to force the government and parliament to take action against Temelin.

The eight-day petition drive began on 14 January and its results are due to be announced tonight (2200 Prague time). If it garners the requisite 900,000 signatures, the petition will put pressure on the Austrian government to reopen the issue of Temelin.

The petition calls on Austria to veto the Czech Republic's entry into the EU -- which is expected to come in 2004 -- unless Temelin is shut down.

Zeman responded immediately to the news of the petition, saying, "the sooner the Austrians get rid of Mr. Haider and his post-fascist party, the better."

Austrian Deputy Chancellor and Freedom Party Chairwoman Susanne Riess-Passer responded the next day, saying, "I think that people who show such democratic immaturity will first have problems during elections in their own country, and second do not understand what it means to want to become a member of the EU, which is based on the principles of democracy, freedom, and rule of law."

In a subsequent interview published in the Austrian newsweekly "Profil," Zeman said Austrian voters were being misled because the petition drive calling for the Temelin nuclear power plant to be shut down is "not aimed at Temelin, but rather against Czech membership in the EU." He accused Haider, who is governor of the province of Carinthia and the Freedom Party's gray eminence, of opposing EU expansion.

Zeman compared the petition drive to the Nazi-organized referendum in 1938 promoting the Anschluss, Germany's annexation of Austria. And he all but insulted participants in the petition drive saying, "Only someone who is not informed -- I avoid the term 'idiot' -- can support this referendum." In Zeman's words, "If Austria is really interested in strengthening its splendid isolation in the EU by hindering the Czech Republic's entry into the EU, then [petition-signers] are on the right road."

Zeman prefaced his remarks by saying he did not want to interfere in Austria's domestic affairs and that "the petition drive is a matter of the Austrians and not of the Czechs." Further in the "Profil" interview, Zeman said: "It would be good if you got rid of your Haider and his post-fascist party as soon as possible. Of course it is your affair? If you are under pressure from a populist pro-Nazi politician who understands nothing but speaks about everything, then it is your problem and not ours? 'Haiders' come and go just like 'Hitlers.' But I believe in the friendship between our two peoples. However, there are ever more provocations coming from the Austrian side. Austria wasn't the first victim of Hitler's Germany, but rather its first ally."

Austrian President Thomas Klestil yesterday entered the dispute, phoning President Vaclav Havel, who is currently vacationing in the Canary Islands, to express indignation over Zeman's remarks. Havel's spokesman Ladislav Spacek later told reporters that Austria and the Czech Republic must refrain from allowing emotion to factor into their dialogue and that any discussions of the issue must be matter-of-fact.

In an interview published yesterday in the German weekly "Welt am Sonntag," Haider for his part said, "I don't intend to go down to that [Zeman's] level," adding that he would not demand an apology. Rather, he predicted Zeman's comments would only bring more signatures to his petition drive. As Haider said: "If I have to suffer insults, they should at least pay off. If that means more signatures, I'm very satisfied."

Asked why he is pursuing Temelin and throwing out the good will achieved by Zeman and Schuessel, Haider declared: "What does good have to do with it? The Czech Republic is not alone in the world. We have the right to protect ourselves from a fundamental threat by the Czech Republic."