Austria's new President calls for conciliatory gestures on Benes decrees

Prezident Vaclav Klaus and Austrian President Heinz Fischer, photo: CTK

Austrian President Heinz Fischer on Wednesday paid his first official visit to Prague since his appointment as head of state on July 8. Mr Fischer first visited Prague Castle to hold talks with his Czech counterpart Vaclav Klaus and then, separately, with Prime Minister Stanislav Gross. On the official agenda: How Austria and the Czech Republic should co-operate in the European Union. But, as Dita Asiedu tells us, the two topics that have been causing friction between Czechs and Austrians - the Benes decrees and the Temelin nuclear power plant - were also discussed.

President Vaclav Klaus and Austrian President Heinz Fischer,  photo: CTK
That's right, Peter. Although both presidents stressed that these two issues would not hinder good bilateral relations, which are better than ever before. But while President Klaus and his Austrian counterpart agreed that the Temelin nuclear power plant in southern Bohemia - which has been a thorn in the side of nuclear-free Austrians - is a matter of Czech internal policy, their opinions differed somewhat regarding the Benes decrees. The decrees were introduced after WWII and sanctioned the expulsion and confiscation of property of some 2.5 million ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia. Many Austrians and Germans have been calling for the decrees to be revoked; some even want to be compensated. Mr Fischer too said on Wednesday that a little more regret from the Czech side would be welcome:

"The Benes decrees and Temelin are two completely different issues. The Benes decrees are the result of tragic developments after the WWII, which saw collective decision-making but also injustice. That is what we need to talk about when we want to objectively come to terms with the past. I also think that the right words and right gestures from the Czechs would make a difference. Temelin is about atomic energy - how it can be dangerous and whether it is safe enough and we should keep in mind that every country has the right to define its own energy policy."

Prime Minister Stanislav Gross with President Heinz Fischer,  photo: CTK
President Klaus, on the other hand, only had a few words to say:

"We have all examined our past critically and are very much aware of even the unpleasant things. Now, we need to look at what we plan to do with the lessons we have learned from the past. I think there is nothing we can do to change the past, so we have to look at the present to make sure that the past will never repeat itself again."

But although President Fischer said more concrete "words and gestures" from the Czech side would be welcome, he stressed that controversial issues from the past would not be allowed to prevent good neighbourly relations. His priority as president, he says, is to focus on what Czechs and Austrians have in common and work towards a positive joint future as neighbours and EU members together.

But do Czechs and Austrians have much in common?

Well, the Viennese would certainly say so. They say that you'd never find three Austrians sitting together in Vienna as the third one is always going to be Czech. Many Austrians have Czech roots. Mr Fischer's predecessor, the late Thomas Klestil, is a good example - his family comes from southern Bohemia. Mr Fischer too has stressed several times that he has a special relationship with the Czech Republic as his grandfather came from Moravia and his parents speak Czech. In fact, in a recent interview for a Czech daily, he said his father used Czech to communicate with Soviet troops after WWII and thanks to that his family was spared from possible persecution. Mr Fischer himself though doesn't speak Czech.

President Heinz Fischer with the opposers of the Temelin nuclear power,  photo: CTK
But despite this connection, Austrians still feel the need to protect their labour market from Czechs...

Yes, and that's actually what Prime Minister Gross talked to President Fischer about. One of the most tangible benefits to EU membership is the right to seek work within the union. But for fear of an influx of cheap labour, Austria has imposed a transition period regarding the free movement of labour. In two years, Austria is due to decide whether or not to extend that transition period. Prime Minister Gross has asked Fischer to open Austria's labour market and Mr Fischer as well as Austria's Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero Waldner, who accompanied him to Prague, said they would work on it.