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Austria's right-wing, nationalist Freedom Party suffered another in a series of electoral setbacks in 2001, losing ground in Vienna's municipal elections. The Social Democrats and the Greens registered impressive gains and immediately collaborated to challenge the ruling conservative coalition government. Press freedom groups expressed concern over the alleged intervention of political figures into the work of editorial staff. They also called upon Austria to abandon new plans to criminalize certain journalistic activity. Austria experienced a noticeable increase in illegal immigration during the year, which prompted the imposition of lower immigration quotas. The ruling People's Party faced allegations of receiving illicit funds from a secret arms deal with Botswana.
The Republic of Austria was established in 1918, after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and was reborn in 1945, seven years after its annexation by Nazi Germany. Occupation by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union ended in 1955 under the Austrian State Treaty, which guaranteed Austrian neutrality and restored national sovereignty.
The Freedom Party lost ground in municipal elections in Vienna in March, the party's third consecutive setback since it became a coalition partner in the national government. The party captured 20 percent of the vote, compared with 28 percent in the 1996 elections. Jorg Haider, the party's former leader and the current governor of Carinthia province, stirred controversy after issuing anti-Semitic slurs during the campaign. Haider openly espoused a populist, xenophobic and pro-Nazi platform in successful national elections in 1999. After the Freedom Party became a junior coalition partner in the center-right government of chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, the European Union (EU) imposed diplomatic sanctions against Austria. Sanctions were lifted in the middle of 2000, following Haider's resignation as Freedom Party leader. Haider does not hide his ambition to one day become Austrian chancellor.
In July, the Green Party alleged the ruling People's Party had received illicit financing via a secret arms deal with Botswana. Botswana reportedly received tanks, machine guns, armored vehicles, and grenades in the 1998 deal.
In August 2001, the Vienna Green Party, seizing upon the Freedom Party's electoral setback, announced plans to form a coalition with the Social Democratic Party in municipal government. This was seen as a test for possible future collaboration on the national level.
Austrians can change their government democratically. The country's provinces possess considerable latitude in local administration and can check federal power by electing members of the upper house of parliament. Voting is compulsory in some provinces. The independent judiciary is headed by a supreme court and includes both constitutional and administrative courts.
A 1955 treaty prohibits Nazis from exercising freedom of assembly and association. Nazi organizations are illegal, but Nazis are welcomed in the Freedom Party. In 1992, public denial of the Holocaust and justification of approval of Nazi crimes against humanity were outlawed. In general, Austrian police enforce these anti-Nazi statutes more enthusiastically when extremists attract international attention. However, Austria was called to task during the year for its Nazi-era behavior. In August, Austria made an initial payment of $36 million to former Austria-based, Nazi-era slaves and forced laborers during World War II.
While Austrian media are considered free, the Austrian Broadcasting Company (ORF) holds a monopoly on the transmission of domestic television programs. Private TV is transmitted by cable or satellite. The press market is characterized by a monopoly. Two companies own the majority of titles in a market of six million people. The weekly news magazine Die Kronenzeitung commands a 43 percent market share with an editorial policy close to that of the right-wing Freedom Party. During the year, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) complained about a lack of media diversity in Austria. It also suggested there is too much state control and censorship of the media.
A broadcasting law protects the media from political interference. However, in February, RSF reported that political figures were harassing journalists. The group pointed to an increase in lawsuits against media outlets--many filed by Freedom Party leaders--and official intervention into the work of editorial staff covering political news.
In May, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) called on the government to abandon draft laws designed to criminalize certain journalistic investigations. The new laws would outlaw publication of certain court files and internal government documents considered "forbidden material." The IFJ expressed alarm, saying the new laws would "stifle democratic debate and send decent journalists to jail." The European Commission has in the past criticized Austria for press freedom violations.
Women hold approximately 10 percent of federal assembly seats and approximately 20 percent of provincial seats. Susanne Riess-Passer assumed leadership of the Freedom Party after Jorg Haider stepped down in 2000. Women are prohibited by law from working at night in most occupations. Nurses, taxi drivers, and a few other workers are exempted from this ban. Women are allowed to serve in the military. The ruling Social Democratic Party has pledged to begin to address gender biases by ensuring that women occupy 40 percent of all party and government posts by 2003.
In December, after a constitutional court ruled that place-name signs in Carinthia province must be written in German and Slovenian if a census reveals that more than 10 percent of the province's population is ethnically Slovene. Jorg Haider vowed to defy the ruling and insisted that a referendum on the issue be held.
Attempts by immigrants to enter Austria illegally rose significantly in 2001, breeding greater domestic resentment over the large proportion of foreigners living in the country. As of September, the Austrian army caught nearly 7,000 people trying to enter the country illegally. The total figure was considered higher as police and other security services caught many more. Many of the immigrants--from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Romania, and Bangladesh--paid Slovakian smugglers to sneak them into the country. Many immigrants use the Morava River in trying to enter Austria. The river runs along the border with Slovakia.
In August, the government announced new, lower, quotas for legal immigration. Special allowances were made for workers with special skills. Austria has the highest proportion of foreigners of the EU countries. Close to 20 percent (1.8 million) of Vienna's population is foreign. Some districts of the city contain a majority of foreigners. An August poll showed 42 percent of Austrians reject eastward expansion of the EU.
Amnesty International leveled charges of police brutality and racism against nonwhite, and, ostensibly, foreign immigrants. An Amnesty International country report documented cases of nonwhite detainees beaten, kicked, and punched by police.
Under Austria's informal proporz system, many state and private sector appointments--including those of senior teachers in state schools--are made on the basis of affiliation with the two main political parties.
Trade unions retain an important independent voice in Austria's political, social, and economic life. Fifty-two percent of workers are organized in 14 national unions, all of which belong to the Austrian Trade Union Federation and which are managed by supporters of the country's traditional political parties. The right to strike is protected.