Enforcing Austria’s burqa ban a delicate matter in Alpine resort

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A woman wearing a headscarf sits on a bench in a park in Zell am See in Austria. (AFP)
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A woman wearing a niqab sits in a boat in Zell am See in Austria. (AFP)
Updated 05 October 2018
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Enforcing Austria’s burqa ban a delicate matter in Alpine resort

  • The picturesque little town south of Salzburg draws tens of thousands of visitors from Saudi Arabia, the UAE or Oman every year
  • They make up more than a quarter of all annual visitors and holiday brochures are readily available in Arabic

ZELL AM SEE, Austria: With its pristine waters, snow-covered mountains and breathtaking Alpine views, the Austrian lakeside town of Zell am See is one of the top European destinations for visitors from the Gulf region.
And it aims to remain so, even though Austria introduced a ban on face-covering burqa or niqab veils a year ago.
The picturesque little town south of Salzburg with a population of 10,000 is regularly described as “paradise” in Arabic-language reviews online. It draws tens of thousands of visitors from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Oman every year.
They make up more than a quarter of all annual visitors and holiday brochures are readily available in Arabic.
So, when Austria banned the wearing of burqas or niqabs in all public spaces in October 2017 — under pain of fines of up to €150 ($170) — the town’s authorities knew that enforcing the rule could be a delicate matter.
The aim of the ban, according to the government, is to further integration among Austrian Muslims at a time when fears about immigration and radical Islamists are sharply dividing society.
But in resorts such as Zell am See, police are having to enforce it against tourists, fueling fears that the high-spending Arab guests, and the valuable revenue they represent, might be scared off.
“I’ve heard some people say they don’t want to come back now,” said one restaurant worker who asked not to be named, even if he said hadn’t particularly noticed a drop in business this year.
Local police chief Kurt Moeschl said more than 200 fines had been handed out between June and September alone. But his officers were always at pains to remain respectful.
“We have been trying to implement the law with as much tact and sense of proportion as possible,” he said.
Austrian embassies and missions abroad had been working to raise awareness of the new law, Moeschl said. And the police chief himself had hosted the Saudi ambassador in Zell am See to discuss the issue.
Moeschl estimated that in around 90 percent of cases, the women had agreed to remove their veil after police officers explained the new law to them.
Walking along the lakeside, one couple from Saudi Arabia — who did not wish to be named — said they had been approached by police during their stay.
“Yes, the police did talk to us about the niqab law. But we are leaving tomorrow,” the husband said, as his wife, still wearing the veil, stood beside him.
A little farther along the shore, Barbara Scheicher, who operates a boat-rental business, said the law had not had a noticeable impact.
“I haven’t noticed any difference, either in the number [of people] coming, or in how many of them are veiled,” she said.
“I asked one woman whether she knew it was illegal, but she reacted so badly that since then I haven’t. I’ve seen the same reaction when the police have tried to tell people,” Scheicher said.
Police chief Moeschl said his officers had also encountered locals and even other holidaymakers who insisted that women’s veils be forcibly removed.
One Norwegian tourist, for example, went so far as to send the police photos of niqab-wearing women at various locations around the town, complete with the times they were taken, and the message: “Do your job.”
Moeschl insisted that most interactions passed off without incident and that his officers followed interior ministry guidelines.
And he is optimistic that, over time, the situation will become easier.
“I expect that in a few years from now, this won’t be an issue.”


As comedian eyes presidency, Ukraine braces for uncertain future

Presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a policy debate with his rival, Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko (unseen), at the National Sports Complex Olimpiyskiy stadium in Kiev, Ukraine April 19, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 21 April 2019
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As comedian eyes presidency, Ukraine braces for uncertain future

  • Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old comic actor, is best known for his TV portrayal of a schoolteacher who becomes Ukrainian president after a video of him denouncing corruption goes viral

KIEV, Ukraine: A comedian who plays the role of Ukraine’s president on television is set to take on the job for real, pushing out the man who currently holds the office, according to public opinion surveys ahead of Sunday’s election.
Saturday was a so-called “day of quiet,” on which electioneering is forbidden, a respite from a campaign of heated statements and unexpected moments.
Dismayed by endemic corruption, a struggling economy and a five-year fight against Russia-backed insurgents in the country’s east, Ukrainian voters appear poised to strongly rebuke incumbent Petro Poroshenko and replace him with Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Despite never having held political office, Zelenskiy could get more than twice as many votes as Poroshenko, polls suggest.
Since Zelenskiy and Poroshenko advanced to Sunday’s runoff in the first round three weeks ago, the campaign has been marked by jockeying for dominance, including a dispute over holding a debate that left Poroshenko standing next to an empty lectern bearing his opponent’s name and Zelenskiy’s challenge for both of the candidates to undergo drug testing.
Zelenskiy has run his campaign mostly on social media and has eschewed media interviews; Poroshenko has called him a “virtual candidate.” Poroshenko in turn was criticized for a video linked to his campaign that showed Zelenskiy being run over by a truck.
The two finally held an actual debate on Friday evening, just hours before campaigning was to end. They harshly criticized each other and engaged in the melodrama of both kneeling to ask forgiveness of those who lost relatives in the eastern fighting.
In an unexpected move less than 10 hours before polls were to open, a Kiev court heard a suit demanding that Zelenskiy’s registration as a candidate be canceled. The court rejected the case, which was filed by the head of an organization that conducts election observation and claimed that Zelenskiy committed bribery by offering tickets to the Friday debate.
Zelenskiy, a 41-year-old comic actor, is best known for his TV portrayal of a schoolteacher who becomes Ukrainian president after a video of him denouncing corruption goes viral. The name of the show, “Servant of the People,” became the name of his party when he announced his candidacy in January.
Like his TV character, the real-life Zelenskiy has focused his campaign strongly on corruption. Although criticized as having a vague platform, Zelenskiy has made specific proposals, including removing immunity for the president, parliament members and judges, and a lifetime ban on holding public office for anyone convicted of corruption. He also calls for a tax amnesty under which someone holding hidden assets would declare them, be taxed at 5% and face no other measures.
He supports Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO, but only if the country were to approve this in a referendum.
Zelenskiy has proposed that direct talks with Russia are necessary to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where fighting with Russia-backed separatist rebels has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014. The Kremlin denies involvement there and says it is an internal matter. Zelenskiy says Russia-annexed Crimea must be returned to Ukraine and compensation paid.
Zelenskiy’s image has been shadowed by his admission that he had commercial interests in Russia through a holding company, and by persistent speculation about links with oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who owns the television station that airs “Servant of the People.”
A Ukrainian court this week ruled that the nationalization of a bank once owned by Kolomoyskyi was illegal, leading to new concern about Zelenskiy’s possible ties to him.
Poroshenko, who entered politics after establishing a lucrative candy-making company, came to power with a pragmatic image in 2014 after mass protests drove the previous, Russia-friendly president to leave the country.
Five years later, critics denounce him for having done little to combat Ukraine’s endemic corruption. The war with Russia-backed separatists in the east grinds on with no clear strategy for ending it. And while his economic reforms may have pleased international lenders, they’ve left millions of Ukrainians wondering if they can find the money to pay their utility bills.
After his weak performance in the election’s first round, in which Zelenskiy got nearly twice as many votes, Poroshenko said he had taken voters’ criticism to heart. He has since made some strong moves, including the long-awaited creation of an anti-corruption court. He also ordered the dismissal of the governor of the corruption-plagued Odessa region, and fired the deputy head of foreign intelligence who reportedly has vast real estate holdings in Russia.
Poroshenko, 53, has positioned himself as a leader who will stand up to Russia. He has scored some significant goals for Ukraine’s national identity and its desire to move out of Russia’s influence.
He signed an association agreement with the European Union — which predecessor Viktor Yanukovych turned away from, setting off the 2014 protests. Ukrainians now can travel visa-free to the European Union, a significant perk. He has also pushed relentlessly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to be recognized as self-standing rather than just a branch of the Russian church.