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Austrians shudder, Hungarians cheer as frontiers fall

Rich nation recoils at influx of impoverished neighbors.

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 25, 2009



St. Margarethen Im, Burgenland, Austria

When neighboring Hungary joined the joint European customs union in 2007, erasing the joint frontier, authorities here moved to block the roads.

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Hungarian motorists confronted "No Entry" signs thrown up on the Austrian side of the border, forcing them to make long detours to the nearest transborder highway, or to abandon their vehicles and walk to their destination.

The roads did not meet Aus­­trian standards, officials claimed, even as their Hungarian counterparts posted welcome signs for Austrians.

Twenty years after the Iron Curtain fell, many East Europeans are celebrating the rebirth of a borderless Central Europe. But their joy is not universally shared in Austria.

"There's this fear ... of rising numbers of immigrants coming and looking for work and welfare assistance, just as in the US," says Gary Cohen, director of the Center for Austrian Studies at the University of Minnesota. "The Austrian right see Muslims – and particularly Turks – as the threat. But you don't hear them complaining about the thousands of ­middle-aged Slovak women who come every year to serve as household caregivers to elderly Austrians."

Manfred Kolly, mayor of Deutschkreuz, which borders Sopron, Hungary, hired guards to patrol his village's streets at night. Burgenland Province governor Hans Niessl boycotted celebrations to mark the end of border controls and, this May, successfully lobbied against plans to discontinue Austrian military patrols.

Some 800 soldiers are deployed along the Hungarian frontier "to prevent illegal border crossings and to increase the feeling of security within the population," says Martin Jaidl, a spokesman for the Austrian military's provincial headquarters. The deployment will continue at least through 2009, he said, adding that the threat was "on a low level," with "no major crime to report."

Mr. Kolly and Mr. Niessl did not respond to requests for comment.

Many traffic signs have been removed in recent months following Hungarian threats to take the matter to the European Union. Janos Palkovics, may­or of Fertorakos, Hungary, near St. Margarethen, also oversaw construction of a temporary new road bypassing the Austrians' blockade.

"Some political parties use concerns about criminality ... as part of their political campaigning," says former Austrian Deputy Chancellor Erhard Busek. "In fact, a great number of our citizens are in favor of the Schengen Treaty," which created Europe's borderless zone.

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