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Austrian government in stalemate following Waldheim speech

The Austrian coalition government continues to flounder as President Kurt Waldheim continues to reject resignation and to defend his wartime record in Hitler's army. Following Dr. Waldheim's latest refusal to step down, in a special radio and television address to the nation Monday night, the Cabinet met yesterday and came out with little more in common than a determination to stick together as long as it can.

Alois Mock, vice-chancellor and chairman of the conservative Austrian People's Party that backed Waldheim's presidential candidacy in 1986, emerged from the Cabinet meeting praising Waldheim's speech as an effort at conciliation. Socialist chairman Fred Sinowatz, by contrast, spoke of the burdens of carrying on government with the current preoccupation with the Waldheim affair.

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Socialist Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, sitting in the middle, did not repeat his implicit threat made Sunday that he himself might resign if he continued to spend 60 percent of his time on the affair. Instead, he affirmed the government's determination to proceed with its work.

The Socialists are reluctant to precipitate a crisis and force new elections. They fear they would do as poorly as last time and would, by default, leave the government to a coalition between the conservative Austrian People's Party and the far-right Austrian Freedom Party.

Dr. Vranitzky argued Sunday that Waldheim had not really ``confronted the issues'' laid out in the historians' report of last week, in which they found no evidence of war crimes by Waldheim himself. The historians met to discuss Waldheim's record in the Balkans in World War II. But Vranitzky said Waldheim knew such crimes were being committed and did nothing to stop them during his service as a lieutenant in the German Army in the Balkans. Vranitzky faulted Waldheim for regarding attacks on his record as a ``world-wide Jewish conspiracy.''

Yesterday, the Austrian writers' union called for Waldheim's resignation. But the major Austrian newspaper Die Presse supported Waldheim in his refusal, as the President phrased it Monday, to yield with ``premature departure'' in the face of ``slanders, hateful demonstrations, and wholesale condemnations.'' In his speech, Waldheim charged his ``accusers from Austria and abroad'' with using ``every means to manipulate and lie.'' Die Presse warned Austrians not to create a crisis and hound the President out of office.

Commenting for the first time in several days was Prof. Manfred Messerschmidt, the West German member of the historians' commission. Dr. Messerschmidt rebutted Waldheim's criticism of the report as ``built on presumptions and hypotheses.'' He also rebutted earlier criticism by a Waldheim ally of the commission as flawed because it consisted of Jews and Socialists. The ally, Karl Gruber, is a former foreign minister who hired Waldheim into the diplomatic service back in the 1940s. Before entering Austrian politics Waldheim served both as Austrian foreign minister and for 10 years as secretary-general of the United Nations.

Messerschmidt, indicating such assertions could not go unanswered, told German Radio yesterday that only the President's resignation could now end the debate about Waldheim's past.

For some Austrian conservatives Waldheim is turning into a liability. The issue is no longer his wartime record. But rather it is his subsequent hiding of his service in the Balkans and his current insistence on staying in office at all costs. On Sunday a few conservative politicians even joined the demonstration of about 5,000 in Vienna - the largest yet - calling for Waldheim's resignation.

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The Munich Merkur, which has been sympathetic to Waldheim's plight, wrote yesterday that the ``obstinate'' Waldheim was continuing to ``dig himself further into the Vienna Hofburg [presidential palace] while the broken crockery mounts higher and higher outside his door.''

According to wire reports, Waldheim launched libel proceedings against the West German weekly Der Spiegel yesterday for publishing a document purporting to show he was involved in war crimes, a presidential spokesman said.

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