Austria has re-imposed passport controls at its borders with Germany and Italy in preparation for the World Economic Forum, which begins Sunday in Salzburg and is expected to attract high-level politicians and experts from both Western and Eastern Europe. The Austrian government says it is seeking to deter the thousands of demonstrators who now regularly appear at major international meetings in an effort to influence them -- and the hundreds of rioters who seek to disrupt the meetings violently. The most recent example was the European Union summit in Goteborg, Sweden, earlier this month, which was marred by violent battles between demonstrators and police. RFE/RL correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Salzburg.
Salzburg, 26 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Passport controls between Austria and its European Union neighbors, Germany and Italy, were abolished three years ago. The move became possible when Italy joined the Schengen Agreement, which allows people from any member country to travel freely in another member country.
But today, workmen at Austria's German and Italian borders are restoring passport control booths, placing concrete barriers to redirect truck and private car traffic, and installing traditional red-and-white poles across the borders.
The controls are in place not only on busy Autobahns, but also on the numerous small roads into Austria from Germany and Italy. Austria has temporarily hired hundreds of former border guards to resume their old duties for the nine days that the controls will be in force.
Austria's Interior Ministry told RFE/RL today that there was no intention of banning peaceful demonstrations at the Salzburg meeting of the World Economic Forum, which begins Sunday, 1 July and will host many high-level European officials. But the government in Vienna does want to stop those who come armed with clubs and explosive Molotov cocktails -- like the protesters who disrupted the 1999 World Trade Conference in Seattle, the meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund last year in Prague, and the EU summit this month in Goteborg.
A senior Austrian official who asked not to be identified said intelligence reports from other European countries suggest up to 5,000 demonstrators may try to get to Salzburg to protest globalization and capitalism, and that some of them intend to act violently.
The official called such demonstrators "professional violence-makers." He said that they incite violence under the pretense of being honest opponents of globalization.
The official declined to provide any information on the measures planned by Austria in cooperation with other countries. He said discussing such details might help the violence-minded demonstrators.
An Austrian border guard, Ulrich Haas, says that despite the unusual delays at the international borders, most motorists and truck drivers understand the need for the temporary reinstallation of passport controls:
"I believe the television pictures from Goteborg were shown around the world, and people understand that the controls are needed so that violence-minded demonstrators are denied entry."
The Interior Ministry says several Internet sites are offering advice to potential demonstrators on how they can avoid the Austrian controls. The ministry says some sites it has monitored suggest taking minor roads or paths through forests or mountains, where border controls were minimal even in the days when passports were required. There is also advice provided on how to dress and behave to avoid police suspicions at control points.
Austrian officials say the country has obtained full support from Germany and Italy in implementing its control measures. Italy is concerned that many of the same demonstrators may attempt to disrupt next month's G8 summit in Genoa. Both Germany and Italy have supplied Austrian border stations with photographs of and information about people known to have taken part in previous violent demonstrations.
Bavaria, the German region adjoining Austria, has put in place its own protective measures. It has placed border guards at many crossing points to check passports even before the traveler reaches the Austrian border. German citizens have been involved in most previous violence at international conferences, including those in Seattle and Goteborg.
Bavarian police now have the right to search suspect vehicles for stones or for materials that could be used in making Molotov cocktails. Bavarian Interior Minister Guenther Beckstein says preventive detention awaits those suspected of planning violence at the Salzburg conference:
"We have made it clear that we will not allow those known to use violence to travel into Austria. We can apply for a judge's order to place them in protective custody. The Bavarian police law allows people to be detained for up to 14 days in extreme cases [even if they have not actually committed a crime]."
Bavaria had also proposed lending Austria a powerful water cannon to be installed at the Salzburg border crossing. After considering the offer, the Austrians turned it down.
Our correspondent says that at the crossing between Germany and Salzburg today, many normal travelers met difficulties because they were not aware of the new controls. Some arrived without passports or documents for their car because they are accustomed to crossing the border without controls. In most cases, they were allowed through after buying a temporary pass from the Austrian border authorities for seven dollars (15 DM).
On an ordinary day, as many as half a million people use the Salzburg crossing into Austria. But huge delays are expected over the weekend because six German states begin summer school holidays on Friday, 29 June. Even under normal circumstances this often leads to traffic jams stretching for 50 km or more. So border guards at Salzburg are bracing themselves for a tough time in coping with tens of thousands of holiday-makers -- particularly on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
The border controls will continue until midnight on Wednesday, 4 July.