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Czech Republic/Austria: Authorities React To Temelin Petition Results

The Austrian Interior Ministry announced last night that some 915,000 Austrians -- or 15.5 percent of the country's registered voters -- signed a petition during an eight-day drive sponsored by the ultra-right Freedom Party (FPOe). The petition demands the closure of the Czech Republic's Temelin nuclear power plant as a precondition for Prague's entry into the European Union. The FPOe had hoped for 1 million signatures but is still jubilant about the turnout, while the opposition Social Democrats are relieved that nearly 85 percent of the electorate declined to participate in the petition drive. As RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports, the outcome, in the end, is unlikely to affect either Czech entry into the EU or Czech-Austrian relations.

Prague, 22 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The final tally of Austrians demanding that a shutdown of the Czech nuclear power plant at Temelin be a prerequisite for Czech entry into the EU was 915,000 signatures, or 15.5 percent of Austria's nearly 5.9 million registered voters. Percentages of signatories surpassed 20 percent in communities close to the Czech border.

This was the 26th such postwar petition drive, and it took sixth place in terms of voter participation. But if past is prologue, it is unlikely to have much effect beyond having already muddied the waters of Austro-Czech relations. The insistence by Joerg Haider's ultra-right Freedom Party (FPOe) on an Austrian veto of Czech EU membership theoretically could bring down the government and force early elections. But since the FPOe failed to garner its target of 1 million signatures, it is likely to reduce its demands.

Chancellor and People's Party (OeVP) leader Wolfgang Schuessel today rejected any suggestion that Austria would try to veto the Czech Republic's entry into the EU.

But the FPOe's parliamentary whip, Peter Westenthaler, declared last night that "this is a tremendous victory for Austria -- for direct democracy." However, Austria's Vice Chancellor and FPOe Chairwoman Susanne Riess-Passer took a more reserved tone today, saying she does not understand why the worst-case scenario -- a veto -- is always being raised when there is a chance of reaching an agreement with the Czech authorities.

The FPOe's party chief for Vienna, Hilmar Kabas, sees the outcome as a green light to proceed against Temelin: "It is a good result, and thus it is also a clear obligation that we must proceed according to the line of the petition drive."

Vienna's Mayor Michael Haeupl, of the opposition Social Democrats (SPOe), says he is convinced that far more Viennese than the 15 percent of voters who signed the petition are opposed to Temelin. But he says they did not sign because "they recognized that this petition drive was not about preventing Temelin [from coming on line commercially] but preventing Czech entry into the EU."

The opposition Greens party, despite opposition to Temelin and nuclear power in general, opposed the petition drive as playing into the hands of the FPOe and Haider. The Greens' spokeswoman for environmental issues, Eva Glawischnig, says the petition drive split and weakened the antinuclear movement. And she says the outcome shows a split: "Many who did not sign are clearly opposed to Temelin. Many who did sign oppose the veto (against Czech EU membership)."

An analyst at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, Robert Schuster, describes the FPOe-led petition drive as an "at times politically hysterical, anti-Czech campaign" that he says did not get much beyond the surface of Czech-Austrian relations and thus did not cause any permanent damage. He says the coalition government between Haider's FPOe and Schuessel's OeVP will survive despite predictions that a strong anti-Temelin vote could bring it down.

"The final tally is relatively significantly below the 1 million signature mark, so I think the likelihood that [the coalition] will survive has, if anything, increased. This was a psychological barrier which, had it been broken, would have meant a dynamism that today we'd be unable to predict in what direction it would head. The initial statements by Austrian government politicians, including those of the FPOe, signify that the coalition will survive."

Prague political analyst Jiri Pehe, a former domestic and foreign policy adviser to Czech President Vaclav Havel, says he is not surprised by the outcome: "Well, I think that the results of the petition drive are not really surprising. It was expected that the number of people who would sign would be quite high, and if you consider that the electorate or number of voters who voted in the last election for Haider's party was close to 30 percent, I think in fact it must be a bit of a disappointment for Mr. Haider."

Haider told Austrian ORF TV last night he hopes that what he termed "more reasonable" politicians will come to power after Czech parliamentary elections in June and reopen talks on Temelin.

However, analysts in Austria and the Czech Republic say an agreement on nuclear safety at Temelin -- reached between Schuessel and Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman last November -- will remain valid regardless of any change of governments in Prague, and that it is highly unlikely that the next Czech government will be inclined to shut down the plant.

The Institute of International Relations' Schuster says: "The agreement between the two premiers, of the Czech Republic and Austria, reached in Brussels in the middle of November of last year still remains binding for both parties. Thus, for the Czech Republic, the Temelin problem is resolved because they agreed in Brussels that they would improve Temelin's security. But now the threat is also gone that the petition drive could somehow lead to further activities by Austria, the Austrian government or Austrian deputies to enact a declaration aimed at preventing the Czech Republic from entering the EU."

Schuster says the petition campaign began as an anti-Temelin operation and that 70 to 80 percent of those who signed did so out of fear of Temelin and nuclear power. But he says he cannot rule out that of the 915,000 signatures, "at least 100,000 people signed in reaction to unkind remarks by [Czech] Premier Milos Zeman, not only about Joerg Haider but about the Austrians as a nation, as a whole."

In an interview with the Austrian news magazine "Profil" published yesterday, Zeman said "only someone who is not informed -- I avoid the term 'idiot' -- can support this referendum." He also accused Austria of having been an ally of Nazi Germany, not a victim. Schuster says many Austrians felt provoked by Zeman's words and reacted accordingly, signing the petition "to teach the Czechs a lesson."

Pehe says the referendum and the accompanying war of words between Prague and Vienna have scarred relations between Prague and Vienna: "Unfortunately, this is to some degree a turning point because relations between the Czech Republic and Austria are probably at the lowest point since 1989, and partly it is because Czech politicians and especially the Czech prime minister have allowed themselves to be drawn into a kind of debate that Mr. Haider must have hoped for. I think that by getting involved on a very emotional level, by making statements that really can only galvanize the Austrian public, they have played into the hands of Mr. Haider."

Schuster disagrees: "I think that [Austro-Czech relations] reached their lowest level about two years ago when the Czech Republic -- as the only one of the candidate countries of Central or Eastern Europe -- joined the EU's sanctions against Austria. I'd say that that was far harsher. And the main thing [is] it had a greater effect in freezing the atmosphere between the politicians of both countries since they didn't talk at all about the problems that exist between the Czech Republic and Austria, not just Temelin but the Benes decrees (on expropriation of Sudeten German minority property and the expulsion of nearly 3 million Germans) and the whole complex of issues connected with the past. But if we compare that to the situation now, it is a completely different atmosphere. It's still better, despite everything that was said between the two sides in the past week."

Pehe says that, at this point, it is very difficult for other more moderate Austrian politicians to stay out of the war of words because "the Austrian public has been very displeased with the reactions that they have seen on the Czech side."

"I would not overestimate the importance of the petition drive in Austria because, after all, this is not a referendum. This is just a petition drive, and now it's in the hands of the Austrian parliament to decide what's next. I think it will be very difficult for the Austrian parliament to decide that the Czech entry into the European Union should be blocked by this petition, which after all was signed by only about 15 percent of the Austrian voters."

Pehe says he does not think the danger of preventing the Czech Republic from entering the EU is significant. He predicts that other Austrian parties will be very careful -- that the opposition SPOe, as well as the ruling OeVP, will both try to minimize the damages caused by Haider and the petition drive.

"Above all, I think that the Czech Republic can breathe a sigh of relief that, despite the prognosis, the number of votes didn't reach 1 million or surpass 1 million, though the prognosis had appeared quite threatening. They can be relieved because the first reaction by the Austrian side, by Austrian politicians, shows that the vote for Temelin is not so strong that it would result in a change in the Austrian government's policy on Temelin to date and above all on its policy toward the Czech Republic, which wants to join the European Union."

Nevertheless, some FPOe leaders are already talking about launching further populist campaigns against the Dukovany nuclear power plant in Moravia, Mochovce in Slovakia, and Krsko in Slovenia.