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Austria's Capital Faces Rivals in the East


GABELFRUHSTUCK, which means literally "fork breakfast," is a traditional Viennese midmorning meal, originally invented to give the city's early-rising working classes a quick and simple way to quiet their roaring hunger until lunch time. The gabelfruhstuck, so named because it is eaten simply with a fork, is making a comeback at some of Vienna's best restaurants and cafes. But these days the meal has grown beyond its blue-collar appeal to include the city's managers, investors, builders, and CEOs. That a increasing number of Vienna's white collars have been working long enough by 10 or 11 a.m. to crave something more than a pastry is a telltale sign that Vienna is taking seriously the challenges presented by the opening up of Eastern Eu r


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For years, the complacent and undisputed gateway to Western Europe and bridge between east and west, Vienna is finding its economic and political role challenged by the formation of a new Central Europe and the awakening of cities like Prague, Budapest, and the recently reunited Berlin.

Most observers here say the new competition will be good for a city that for four decades was cradled by an assumption that its place on the West's eastern border would keep it special and necessary. Most expect the city to adjust, perhaps even becoming the unofficial capital of what is referred to as a developing Danube economic region.

At the same time, some longtime observers say Vienna will likely see its international role decline as a result of changes in Eastern Europe. There are also nagging worries that the city may resist any change that appears to trouble its calm prosperity. Such resistance, some here say, could over time leave Vienna trailing behind more dynamic neighbors.

"Vienna's paradox is that it has shifted from the edge of something to find itself at a geographical center, but in so doing it has lost a role," says Gerald Stourzh, a historian at the University of Vienna. "It is less needed as a center of exchange than it was before."

Part of what made Vienna attractive for decades, especially to the East, is that it was small and not powerful, prosperous but not in the European Community (EC), in the West yet neutral and not aligned with NATO.

Today, however, many of the points that once made the city an attractive meeting place are inconsequential or a clear disadvantage.

As Eastern Europe shifts to a market economy and the region develops, "other cities, but especially Prague, will turn into competitors or rivals to Vienna in terms of the capital of Central Europe," Dr. Stourzh adds.

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Especially aware of shifting economic forces in Europe, Austria has applied for EC membership. The country hopes to be part of the Community by 1995. But city leaders still worry that Vienna's citizens will resist similarly radical changes needed in the city to keep it moving forward.

Such concerns came to life last month when voters shocked the business and political communities by shouting a resounding "no" in a referendum on a proposed 1995 universal exposition. The decision has been interpreted variously as a reaction against anticipated higher taxes, already rising housing prices, and fears of corruption.

But to a number of observers, the vote reflected growing Viennese concerns about an unpredictable Eastern Europe and a resistance to troubling Vienna's traditional calm.

"There is a kind of xenophobia growing in Austria and in Vienna in particular," says Thomas Chorherr, editor in chief of Die Presse, a Vienna daily.

"The referendum was a sign of what people think about the city's situation in the midst of events around us," he adds. "When they heard the predictions of millions of visitors, when many of them feel the streets are already filled with Eastern Europeans, the majority said, 'We don't need this.

Most Viennese remember a recent day when Hungary had a holiday on a normal Austrian working day, Dr. Chorherr says.

"The streets were jammed with Hungarians and it was impossible to get across town," he recalls. "It had a direct effect on the vote."

Like much of Western Europe, Austria and Vienna in particular have experienced a wave of foreigners seeking political asylum during the past year or two. Many asylum seekers and illegal immigrants get construction work or other jobs which Austrians do not want or which are only offered to foreigners because the jobs pay less.

But Chorherr says the common assumption is that most foreigners are living off the community chest. He tells of a conversation he overheard recently between two smartly dressed elderly women on the way to the opera.

"I was astounded when one said to the other, 'At the theater, they keep charging us higher prices, and with that they pay to feed the Bohemians coming here.

Despite the Expo vote, however, Chorherr places himself among what he calls the "published opinion" (as opposed to "public opinion") that believes Vienna will overcome initial resistance to its new world to play a central role in a new Europe.

"The Expo vote may have been negative, but before it you heard people saying, 'We'd better approve this [exposition], because if we don't, Budapest will, says Ludwig Steiner, a former ambassador and president of the political commission of the Austrian parliamentary assembly.

"We wouldn't have heard that a year ago, because those countries have never been an example for us. People are starting to wake up to the challenge," he adds, "and that's good."

Others say Vienna's superior infrastructure - good roads, good air connections, developed telecommunications - will keep it ahead of its Eastern European neighbors at least into the 21st century.

"As long as you can't predictably make a [phone] call from one district of Prague to another," says Chorherr, "it's not going to become the capital of Eastern Europe."

Vienna can also be expected to capitalize on its long years as a privileged partner with the East.

"Vienna had a lot of deep-rooted economic contacts with its eastern neighbors before the change," says Christian Rottinger, a spokesman for Vienna Mayor Helmut Zilk. Noting that Austrian companies have built much of Budapest's newest infrastructure, he says, "Vienna has an important role in the modernization of the East."

In that vein, dozens of private companies looking to develop business in Eastern Europe are setting up base offices here. United States automaker General Motors announced plans this month to expand its manufacturing capacity just outside Vienna, as part of its strategy for tackling the nascent East European market.

Nor is Vienna about to be forgotten on the international political scene, just because the East-West divide has fallen. Still a center of United Nations activity, Vienna was named the home of a new Conflict Prevention Center created by the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) in Paris last November.

In existence only since February, the Conflict Prevention Center remains a modest contribution to European security. The idea is to create a focus for referral and resolution of contentious issues among CSCE's 34 members.

"The center hardly deserves its name yet," says Martin Vukovich, head of the Austrian Foreign Ministry's European security and cooperation division.

"But in the future, it could include a council that might serve on fact-finding missions, or provide mediation services, and its areas of inquiry might expand to ecological problems and social and economic conflicts," he adds. "That would fit with Vienna's tradition."

Perhaps the most important contribution the opening of Eastern Europe will bring to Vienna is a renewing of its population, now 1.5 million. Until two years ago, the city's population was declining, with deaths and emigration outstripping births and immigration. Now numbers are climbing, mostly because of arriving East Europeans. The population is expected to hit 2 million by 2050.

For some Viennese, the newcomers represent an opportunity to expand and diversify Vienna's talents; for others, they provide a means of putting a new face on one of Vienna's historic roles.

"In Vienna's golden years before the Second World War, the city was a sort of melting pot of meeting cultures, and that's what we want for the city again," says Mr. Rottinger.

And, he adds, the free movement between cities should promote the kind of cooperation that hasn't always been present.

"The years ahead present a big chance," says Rottinger. "For the first time in a century, Budapest, Prague, and Vienna will be able to freely form a friendship because they want to. And that change and exchange," he says, "will be good for all of us."

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