Freedom in the World
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The collapse of the right-of-center coalition government composed of the center-right People's Party and the far-right Freedom Party lead to an early general election on November 24, which returned the People's Party to power, but without an absolute majority. Press freedom groups expressed concern over media controls that serve as obstacles to freedom of expression. The government introduced anti-immigration measures and a stricter asylum policy that could dislocate hundreds of asylum seekers. Austria also passed legislation prohibiting minors from direct participation in armed conflict.
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.
In October 2001, the government proposed an "integration package" requiring German-language courses for residents from outside the European Economic Area (EEA). Anyone refusing the course would not be granted a visa extension and would be deported.
Austria currently bars some asylum seekers from government-run shelters while their asylum requests are being processed. The new regulation, put into effect on October 1 2002, could lead to the eviction of hundreds of people.
The collapse of the right-of-center coalition government on September 9, following internal divisions in the Freedom Party, led Austrians to make the People's Party the largest party in parliament in the early vote on November 24, 2002. The chancellor is Wolfgang Schussel. Mathias Reichhold was elected the new Freedom Party leader on September 21, after Jorg Haider decided not to run for reelection. Mr. Haider stirred controversy by openly espousing an anti-Semitic, populist, xenophobic, and pro-Nazi platform in successful national elections in 1999. The party saw its level of support decline sharply in local elections in Burgenland on October 6, 2002.
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 the Supreme Court and includes both constitutional and administrative courts.
Austrian media are considered free, but ownership of television and press outlets remains highly concentrated. On January 1, 2002, a law ended Europe's last state monopoly of TV and radio, the state-run ORF; the law authorized private TV stations and created a new audiovisual regulatory body, Komm-Austria. Nevertheless, two press groups own most of the newspapers and magazines in a market of six million. By 2002, most news magazines were under the control of one group, News, and close ties exist between News and the two groups controlling the written daily press. These ties seriously undermine media diversity in Austria, according to Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF).
A broadcasting law protects the media from political interference. However, journalists and media outlets suffered harassment and lawsuits by Freedom Party leaders in 2001, as reported by RSF. Most of these cases were dropped in 2002.
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. Nevertheless, Austria was made to pay $36 million in August 2001 to those who were Austrian-based, Nazi-era slaves and forced laborers during World War II.
As of October 1, 2002, asylum seekers from countries negotiating entry into the European Union are barred from government-run accommodations. Nationals of Russia, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Yugoslavia, and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia can access government-run shelters only while their initial application for asylum is being considered. On October 3, Austria returned Kosovar asylum seekers to Pristina. Human rights groups Amnesty International and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) have criticized the policy, which is expected to evict hundreds of people, saying it breaches European Union guidelines and denies asylum seekers the right to a fair hearing.
In July 2002, parliament struck down the law prohibiting women from night work, bringing Austrian law into line with that of the EU. Women are allowed to serve in the military. The ruling Social Democratic Party, which is likely to be a partner in any coalition the People's Party forms, has pledged to begin to address gender biases by ensuring that women occupy 40 percent of all party and government posts by 2003.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child regarding the involvement of children in armed conflict went into effect on February 12, 2002. The protocol raises the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities and for military conscription from the customary 15 to 18. In Austria, voluntary enlistment is allowed at 17.
Trade unions retain an important independent voice in Austria's political, social, and economic life. The 14 national unions are reorganizing into three main groups, all of which will continue to 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.