Havel, Klestil: post-flood solidarity ideal climate for solving disputes

Klestil und Havel in Znojmo, Photo:CTK

The Austrian President Thomas Klestil arrived in the South Moravian town of Znojmo on Thursday, for a day of talks with his Czech counterpart Vaclav Havel. Relations between the two neighbours have been strained recently, amid disputes over the Temelin nuclear power plant in South Bohemia and the post-war Benes decrees, which sanctioned the expulsion of Czechoslovakia's large ethnic German population. Thursday's meeting was an attempt to build on the solidarity shown between people in the two countries during the recent floods. Here's what President Klestil had to say:

Klestil und Havel in Znojmo, Photo:CTK
"I think that a friendly open discussion - about justifiable concerns - is better than to go to meetings with demands and threats of vetoes. I think we've shown here today how we can solve problems."

And those were sentiments echoed by President Havel. So some grand sentiments there, but can they translated into action? Rob Cameron says the atmosphere of solidarity is ripe for political compromise - but it's still up to the politicians to seize the moment.

Both President Klestil and President Havel went out of their way in Znojmo to stress just how much the two nations had in common over the last few weeks, tapping into the deep psychological effect of the floods. For thousands of ordinary Czechs and Austrians, August has been a grim month of sandbagging doorways and shovelling mud from ruined homes. And that shared experience wasn't restricted to watching each other's floods on TV - Czech and Austrian volunteers rushed across the border to help the rescue effort.

The two presidents said it was time now to capitalise on this feeling of solidarity to resolve the disputes dividing the two countries. Two of those disputes still appear intractable. Austria wants the Czech Republic to scrap its post-war Benes decrees, before the Czechs join the European Union. Prague refuses to discuss the past. And then there's the Temelin nuclear power plant, which many Austrians - fearful of its mix of Soviet design and Western technology - want shut down. The Czech Republic insists the plant is safe.

So what progress can we expect on these two seemingly intractable disputes? A declamation signed in Znojmo contains no concrete steps towards resolving them, something critics will seize upon as proof that presidential meetings are only so much hot air. But once again President Havel hinted in Znojmo that he was about to make a major speech on the Benes decrees, a speech which could break historical taboos. And as for Temelin - the floods have graphically illustrated two things - that what man does to nature can have devastating consequences, and that catastrophes of this scale have little respect for national borders. President Havel said safety at Temelin was an issue which affected everyone in the vicinity - Czech and Austrian.

So the atmosphere appears ripe for progress on these two difficult issues - all eyes are on the politicians to move things forward.