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NATO: Austrian Foreign Minister Raises Membership Issue

Munich, 19 March 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Austria's foreign minister Wolfgang Schuessel says Austria is interested in joining NATO but only on conditions which allow it to retain what remains of its neutrality. No neutral country is currently a member of NATO.

In an interview with the Vienna newspaper "Der Standard," Schuessel called on NATO to develop a process which would allow Austrian admission but would not require it to base either foreign troops or nuclear missiles on its territory. "Membership of NATO without any ifs and buts is not possible," he told the newspaper.

Schuessel heads the People's Party (OVP), the junior partner in the Government coalition led by the Socialist party. The coalition has governed Austria since 1986. Schuessel has been leader of the OVP and foreign minister since April 1995.

Schuessel's comments have provoked a new debate in Austria on the meaning and value of its neutrality in the post-communist world. To Austrian political commentators it is reminiscent of the years of discussion about Austrian membership of the European Union. The Soviet Union, which forced neutrality on Austria in 1955 as part of the price for withdrawing its occupation troops, put heavy pressure on Vienna not to join because it would be a violation of neutrality.

Austria eventually negotiated membership in a manner which preserved most of its neutrality while weakening strict adherence to it in some areas. Voters gave unexpectedly heavy support to membership in a referendum in June 1994.

Schuessel was not involved in the negotiations, either with the EU or with Moscow which were largely conducted by his predecessor Alois Mock.

In his interview, Schuessel acknowledged that the meaning of neutrality would have to be reviewed again if Austria entered NATO.

The most obvious example is the provision in the NATO charter which requires all NATO states to go to the defence of a fellow-member if it is attacked. Schuessel said that in such a case "the principle of neutrality would have to give way to the principle of solidarity." He acknowledged that this would shrink the nation's neutrality "but would not make it completely obsolete." However he said the principle of neutrality would prevent Austria participating in a NATO military action outside Europe, for example in Africa or Asia.

At present Austria's doubts are theoretical because NATO itself is still discussing the question of using its military power in actions outside Europe.

Austrian commentators say the foreign ministers comments have sparked a debate within the senior coalition partner, the Socalist party. It is largely internal because the Socialist party is still getting used to its new leader and State Chancellor, Victor Klima , who took over after the sudden resignation of Chancellor Franz Vranitzky a few weeks ago.

The Socialists were the strongest defenders of Austrian neutrality in the debate over the European community and are expected to play a similar role if there is a move to join NATO.

Austria has a long history of prickliness towards anything which appears to be an assault on its neutrality. There was a roar of protest from the Socialist Party in 1992 when the then foreign Alois Mock allowed NATO to send unarmed AWACS reconnaissance aircraft through Austrian air space to patrol NATO's southern flank .

Shortly before this happened, the then NATO secretary-general Manfred Woerner, had told Mock and other OVP leaders that Austria might paint itself into a corner and isolate itself from the rest of Europe if it interpreted its neutrality too strictly. The comments angered many Austrians who argued that NATO would never make such a comment to neutral Switzerland.

Austria's reservations about the conditions of membership of NATO are in contrast with the readiness of its central European neighbours to join the western Alliance. Hungarian foreign minister Laszlo Kovacs visited Bonn earlier this week to impress the German government with its desire to be nominated for membership at the NATO summit in Madrid in July. And, a little ironically, it was Austrian television which broadcast a program on Poland's desire to join.

Hungary and Poland, along with the Czech Republic, are expected to lead the first group of countries invited to begin negotiations with NATO.

Austria is a member of NATO's partnership for peace program, but is not on any list of expected early members.