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East: Reaction To Austrian-EU Controversy Is Mixed

The tough reaction of the European Union to the participation of Joerg Haider's far-Right Freedom Party in the new Austrian government has left public opinion divided in many EU candidate countries. RFE/RL's correspondent Ahto Lobjakas looks at the reactions in some of those candidate countries.

Prague, 11 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The inclusion of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria's coalition government has drawn a varied response among the leading EU candidate countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

The strongest official concerns were voiced by Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Hungary, which has historically strong ties with Austria, was relatively mild in its condemnation. The three Baltic countries, geographically distant from Austria, have refrained from any official statements.

In Central Europe, the EU's tough treatment of Austria has made a sharp impression on Czechs. Miroslav Krupicka, head of the English-language Radio Prague, says Czech opinion is split.

Most Czechs resent Haider and his anti-immigrant views, and they fear a toughening of the Austrian position on EU enlargement, which Haider opposes. A minority view is personified by the powerful opposition leader and ex-premier Vaclav Klaus, who has said the EU's refusal to accept a democratic government is worse than the accession to power of an extreme-right party.

Krupicka says the rise of Haider's party in Austria -- which owed much to the dissatisfaction of Austrians with the two dominant parties -- could provide hope, not for extreme-rightists in the Czech Republic, but rather for extreme leftists. The left, he says, could benefit from voter dissatisfaction with the two dominant Czech parties.

"It's rather the Communist party in the Czech Republic who will benefit from what happens in Austria. The two main political parties who are well established and .... who share power don't want others to share the power with them. As opinion polls tell us, people are more and more disgusted by the so-called opposition treaty (that allows the Czech Social Democrats to preside over a minority government with the consent of the largest opposition party, headed by Klaus)."

Hungarian public opinion is overwhelmingly supportive of Austria and critical of the EU. Besides historic ties, Hungary also has good current political and economic relations with Austria. Analysts say it is still too early to say whether sympathy for Austria will translate itself into decreasing support for Hungary's EU membership.

According to the head of the Hungarian negotiating team in EU membership talks, Peter Gottfried, there is still consistently strong support of from 65 to 70 percent for Hungarian EU membership.

In Poland, public reaction was uncertain. Marek Ostrowski, Foreign Editor of the weekly "Politika," told RFE/RL that events in Austria, and the international community's reaction to them, have left most Poles confused:

"The events in Austria and the EU reaction were largely reported (that is, reported at length) in Poland because Austria is in our close neighborhood. But the Polish public did not shape strong opinions of its own, because most people do not know what to think about, there is a certain confusion."

Ostrowski attributed the confusion to Poland's history and convoluted internal politics. He said many Poles, especially in the south of the country, feel a certain affiliation with Vienna. The southern Polish city of Krakow was an important town in the Austro-Hungarian empire.

But Ostrowski doesn't think the Austrian problem will have any measurable effect on Polish support for joining the EU. Currently, about two-thirds of the population backs EU membership.

Among the other Eastern candidates for EU accession, Estonia's public has taken a great deal of notice of the Austrian developments. The Tallinn government has adopted a wait-and-see approach and refrained from comment, but a number of leading politicians have voiced their concerns.

Our correspondent spoke with Tarmu Tammerk, a leading Estonian commentator on European affairs. Tammerk says unease about the EU's strong reaction to events in Austria is widespread in the country. Estonia is a small nation with painful memories of the Soviet Union which, Tammerk says, makes parallels between the EU and the Soviet Union easy to draw. In his view, the EU action will further feed anti-EU sentiment in the a country where less than 40 percent of the population says it supports EU entry.

"I do think that in the long run what happened to Austria will contribute to the already widespread skepticism of the EU in Estonia. This is something which many politicians have also predicted. This is probably what will happen."

Although there is no up-to-date poll data yet, newspaper web-site polls can be considered relatively representative in Estonia, given that 26 percent of Estonians regularly use the Internet. The results of an Internet poll published yesterday by Estonia's biggest daily, "Postimees," showed that out of nearly 1,100 respondents, some 70 percent said their opinion of the EU had worsened, while less than 10 percent said it had improved.