IN Viennese cafes, life is much as it has always been - a prolonged lunch amid animated students at one table and secretive gossip at others. But this spring, Vienna is somewhat less content than in recent decades, and what earlier might have been dismissed as the avocational complaining of which Viennese are fond now has a serious tone. The world in which Austrians have prospered since post-war occupation troops left in 1955 has shifted and surged. Discomfiting issues are intruding on the tranquillity and self-identity that Vienna, and by implication Austria, has enjoyed for decades.
Cut off from its empire by the revolution of 1848 and, finally, the Treaty of Versailles, Vienna retains the sense of something far grander than the small Central European state that surrounds it.
Austria has prospered as a neutral state, outside both NATO and the EC. A carefully articulated foreign and defense policy that steered away from alignments brought considerable diplomatic and financial activity to Vienna. From superpower summits, UN commissions, institutional arms negotiations, CSCE meetings, and OPEC summits, Vienna has hosted an array of high-level diplomatic activities.
By summer 1990, however, Viennese can see clearly that East versus West is a distinction that no longer offers a role for the city or country. As the Warsaw Pact unravels and fledgling parliamentary democracies try to replace communist bureaucracies, cafe chatter has turned from rituals to international security and new wrinkles in Austria's tranquillity.
Refugees - now largely economically motivated - are once again streaming into and through Austria. With more than 30,000 expected by Interior Minister Franz Loeschank in 1990, and bigger proportions settling in Austria rather than just passing through, tolerance for Romanians, Bulgarians, Hungarians, or Poles is decreasing.
Refugees are clustered in eastern Austria, while the Tirol and the west generally have avoided East European newcomers. The government, meanwhile, provides shelter and food, but not jobs (on the theory that jobs would be taken away from Austrians). Thus a heavy burden is placed on public assistance in certain parts of Austria.
The rising antipathy towards immigrants and refugees is encouraged and used by the Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) and its leader Joerg Haider. Although he has toned down his rhetoric, there is little doubt that his arch-conservative views are feeding on irritation with both the numbers and nationalities (especially Romanian) of recent arrivals.
The two largest parties, ruling in a grand coalition, are the Austrian People's Party (OeVP) and the Socialist Party of Austria (SPOe), the latter holding the Chancellor's post in the person of Franz Vranitzky. Both are centrist and mainstream, with the People's Party trailing the Socialists in public opinion more now than in the last election. As People's Party leader for less than a year, Vice Chancellor Josef Riegler has managed to be implicated in a financial scandal, and has created a poor press image.
THE Socialists, too, have fallen from 43 percent support in 1986 to 39 percent today, although Mr. Vranitzky himself - the ``teflon chancellor'' according to some pundits - has managed to ride out most of the ill effects of other revelations about members of his cabinet. Although Vranitzky would be selected by fewer people today as chancellor, he would still vastly out-poll any opponent.
Like the right wing, the ``left,'' especially Austria's Greens, have increased strength from 4.8 percent to 8 percent. The ``undecided'' vote, too, has grown rapidly.
Why this movement toward political extremes and indecision?
Apart from refugees and scandals attached to particular politicians, Austrians are confronted by unsettling changes. Presented with the EC's decision for a European economic union (1992), Austrians have committed themselves to EC membership and the Vranitzky government has tried to expedite the application. Once in, however, long-protected financial and service industries, not to mention smaller-scale Austrian manufacturers, will be hard pressed to compete with nearby giants in Germany and Italy. And membership in the EC will join Austria to the West as an economic ally, leaving little neutrality.
It will also prove hard for Austria to avoid deep involvement in an effort to institutionalize CSCE. Austrians are committed to European integration, but to the degree CSCE develops in the 1990s into a system of collective security, Austrian distance from ``alliances'' will be difficult to discern.
Viennese worry as well about simply being left out. Now that Prague and Budapest are accessible and open for business, the hunch of many is that Vienna's prices, conservatism, and too-comfortable familiarity will push companies and diplomats East.
Trying to head off such movement away, Chancellor Vranitzky visited President Bush in February to suggest, among other things, that Vienna become the site for both the East European Reconstruction and Development Bank and for the November CSCE summit. Vranitzky's comments to the press also emphasized Austrian firms' experience working in the East.
But the sentiment is mounting that other cities in Central and Eastern Europe (especially Berlin) will take the spotlight. In his April 23 lead editorial in the Vienna news magazine, Profil, editor Peter Rabl speaks of Berlin as Europe's capital, and Vienna as having seen its best days already.
With a general election set for Oct. 7, the summer and early autumn should be a time of debate throughout Austria, but with an intensity uncommon in the cafes of Vienna.