The Washington Post

March 6, 1990, The Washington Post

Austria at a Crossroad amid East Bloc Upheaval

Neutral state, long viewed as bridge between East and West, faces calls to redefine role

VIENNA – The collapse of Communist rule in the neighboring East Bloc has suddenly transformed Austria’s geopolitical prospects, and this small neutral state of 7.5 million people is responding with a mixture of hope and anxiety to the dramatic changes around it.

Last year’s dismantling of postwar barriers, which had cut off Vienna from the territories it ruled until the 1918 collapse of the Hapsburg monarchy, already has brought a surge of economic activity.

The Vienna Stock Exchange index has nearly tripled since the start of 1989, spurred by Austrian firms cashing in on the newly freed markets of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. Government officials from those countries regard stable and prosperous Austria as a model for economic and social development and now frequently visit here for advice.

In the climate of relaxed tensions, Austrians are debating scrapping their conscripted army. Neglected and impoverished border regions are being revived by commerce and tourism. Severed rail links across the reopened frontiers are being restored, and in the capital, the government is considering construction of a new central station to handle flourishing East-West traffic.

“We are back to where we belong, at the center of Europe,” said Ernst Sucharipa, head of the East European desk at the Foreign Ministry.

At the same time, Austrian neutrality-which won Vienna the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1955-has lost much of its meaning in the new European context. There are growing calls for redefining the role of a state that long saw itself as a bridge between opposing ideological systems. “We need a reexamination and a reformulation of the meaning of our republic,” said Science Minister Erhard Busek.

There also are popular fears that Austria could be left behind in the Western rush to assist Central European countries newly liberated from Communist control.

While the government of Socialist Chancellor Franz Vranitzky has reaffirmed Austria’s tradition of granting asylum and transit to political refugees, checks on illegal workers have been tightened to stem the influx of job seekers from the East.

Vranitzky has stressed that Austria belongs firmly in the Western camp, and a drive is underway to speed up its July 1989 application to join the European Community.

At a recent meeting of a new government body to step up moves toward European integration, Vranitzky assured the nation that there were no grounds “to observe with envy the endeavors of the European Community concerning the East European states.”

Vienna’s mass circulation daily Kurier has called on Austria to devise a new identity and understanding of its role in the world. “What national mission remains to us?” it asked in an editorial. “If this thought process does not succeed . . . then we are threatened with the danger of sinking into international oblivion.”

Hans Haumer, chairman of Austria’s second-largest bank, Girozentrale, said in an interview that the first prerequisite of a new self-understanding “would be not to believe that Eastern Europe needs Austria.”

“The way from Budapest to London, Frankfurt, Zurich or wherever does not necessarily go via Vienna,” he said. “We have to deserve this role as a mediator. . . . This role needs new substance. It needs substance in terms of resources and the will to change certain rules and regulations.”

There are fears that Austria could be left behind in the Western rush to assist Eastern Europe. Some Austrian officials joke that their country risks being the last “East Bloc country” and needs economic and political reforms of its own to revitalize its heavily state-owned industrial and banking sectors, to free its broadcasting system from state control and to clean up a scandal-ridden system of consensus decision-making among political parties.

But, according to one historian, Austria’s concerns about its role in a new Europe are little different from those facing most states during this period of great change.

“Every state is faced with the redefinition of its role and I don’t think that any single state or government knows at the moment which role it should play,” said historian and commentator Hugo Portisch. “Of course we must devise an entirely new definition of our self-understanding as a state. But I believe it is not justified to expect that now anyone can formulate it overnight. It has to emerge.”

Much will depend on the role a united Germany adopts in the new European order as well as developments in Austria’s southern neighbor, Yugoslavia, where ethnic tensions and ideological rifts threaten the cohesion of its six republics.

Officials in Vienna say they welcome the prospect of German unification, but add that Austria is in no way part of the “German nation.”

The catastrophic result of the 1938 Nazi Anschluss, at first greeted with fervor by many Austrians, resulted in a “healing experience” for the republic, said Portisch. “It was over, and since then there has been a steady rise in the Austrian national consciousness that we are not Germans, that we are a separate nation with our own history, qualities and convictions.”