The Fifth Column: May 2013

Zoo Story

Founded as an imperial menagerie in 1752, Schönbrunn is the oldest zoo in the world, influencing fashion and even literature (Giraffen in Wien, 1828), and providing exotic emergency rations for a starving city during the First World War.

After Schönbrunn was privatised in the early 1990s the zoo was radically sorted out by the legendary Innsbruck vet Helmut Pechlaner. It is now one of the best-run zoos in the world, even managing to persuade giant pandas to mate, a notoriously tough call.

The Eden-like atmosphere at Schönbrunn was not always so, according to Lukas Beck, soft-spoken director of a new TV documentary, Leben im Zoo, aired in mid-April, an affectionate portrait of some of Schönbrunn’s hundreds of zookeepers.

When Dr. Pechlaner arrived the zoo was horribly run-down, Beck said. The keepers were generally drunk by midday, and prone to feeding the animals cheap rotten meat, pocketing the difference. The animals were kept in small, centuries-old cages and kennels. Give or take some slick Pechlaner PR, things were evidently not ideal.

How, I asked innocently, were these reprobates punished? Fed to the lions?

As Beamte (permanent government officials) they were unsackable, Beck said, and had to be given new jobs. As? “Instructors in the Federal Army,” smiled the film director.

Be Careful What You Wish For 

Much unseemly Schadenfreude about the crisis hitting tax havens, and gleeful mockery of Maria Fekter, at the time of writing the only finance minister in Europe defending anonymous accounts.

But as with most dramatic change, there is a downside. With Cyprus now a no-go as a tax paradise, and others under severe threat, the flow of dubious money into Austria, largely Russian, is turning into a flood. The refuge is high-end Austrian property; real estate agents estimate some €5 billion of foreign money was invested this way last year.

For Vindabona, it is the “panda aspect” which is most bothersome. What is it with Russians? In lovely Klosterneuburg a couple of years ago dozens of houses were suddenly bought up by Russians and quickly turned into impregnable fortresses. As the mayor put it: “There is not much contact with local people.” Then again, they tend to avoid each other too.

Kohlmarkt 6, home of Roman Abramovich  | Photo:  PictureObelix

Kohlmarkt 6, home of Roman Abramovich | Photo: PictureObelix

In Kitzbühel there have been attempts to keep Russian tourists down to 10 per cent. But what enrages the locals apart from their bad manners is the mad inflation of property values, like Roman Abramovich, 11th richest man in the world, and owner – through a firm in Liechtenstein – of the smart apartment house at Kohlmarkt 6.

Cost: €27 million. The Chelsea FC owner and pal of Vladimir Putin is also one of the passengers in the occasional cortège of black limos arriving at the Waldschlössl (cost before gold-plating the tape etc.: €15 million) on the south side of the Attersee.

That he likes Austria is fine, but do he and his compatriots have to own it all as well? During the Cold War people used to say “visit Russia before the Russians visit you”. Now they have, with more of them on the way.

Upstairs, Downstairs

Much rejoicing upstairs at the Albertina museum, where man-about-town Klaus Albrecht Schröder has just been re-confirmed as Director of the Albertina through 2019. Less joy at the Filmmuseum downstairs, where director Alexander Horwath has had it up to here with noisy Schickeria rave-ups (repeatedly) celebrating Schröder’s 10-year reign and disrupting films being shown in the main cinema below.

One consolation is the huge online response to his explosion of rage in Der Standard under the headline Zehn Jahre Albertina neu: Glückwunsch, kleiner Rowdy! (“10 Years of new Albertina: Congratulations, little hooligan”). Horwath notes that the police had to be called last time to deal with the partying “Aristos and arrivistes of the Dancefloor-Albertina”, whom he characterises as the shock troops trying to drive the Filmmuseum off the premises.

The polemics lose something in translation, but in broad terms Horwath attacks his neighbour/ landlord, son of a Linz policeman, for turning the Albertina into a “flagship of industrial tourism” and a “classy headquarters for the neo-feudal Austrian boss-class” living high on the hog on state subsidies.

The response has been a more or less unanimous gasp of relief, with several letters to the editor reading simply “Danke! Danke und Bravo, Herr Horwarth!” 

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