Austria is a parliamentary democracy, and the head of the state is the federal president. The country's main legislative bodies are the houses of the Nationalrat and the Bundesrat. Together they form what is known as the federal assembly. The federal government is headed by a chancellor, who, along with cabinet members, conducts any government affairs that are not the responsibility of the president.

In today's government, personal liberty is guaranteed, and the federal constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex, birth, class, religion, race, status, or language.

Vienna today stands at the crossroads of Europe, just as it did in the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During the Cold War, the government pretended to maintain neutrality, which it did not possess, as Austrian leaders feared the return of the Russians, who left peacefully in 1955. Since the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Austria has been moving toward greater cooperation and unity with the Western powers. However, at the turn of the millennium, an estrangement between Austria and its EU neighbors moved dangerously close to the brink, when the European Union temporarily imposed sanctions on Austria -- due to what was viewed as a "dangerous" tilt to the right in 1999 -- when the so-called Freedom Party won 27% of the vote in national elections. The party was anti-immigration, blaming foreigners for many of the country's ills, ranging from rising crime to an increase in drug abuse.

But in October of 2006, Austria's opposition Social Democrats won nationwide elections, swinging the country to the center-left after more than 6 years of influence by the extreme right. Immigration was a central theme in the campaign; the far right wants to reduce the number of foreigners in Austria by 30% -- as of 2008, 16% of Vienna's residents claim some place other than Austria as their birthplace, with most immigrants hailing from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, Poland, and even Germany. The Social Democrats, on the other hand, promised to lower the number of unemployed and reduce salary differences between men and women.

Politics aside, a slight downward drift in tourism is blamed on the daunting prices in Austria. As a cafe owner told us, "We must change our attitudes from complacency and haughtiness to service with a smile. We're going to have to not only improve service but drop prices to bring the world back to our door."

As a center of European culture, Vienna has more than 100 art museums, attracting eight million visitors annually. In 2001, Vienna was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, ranking third in the world in terms of quality of life.

As a world capital, Vienna rivals Geneva in being the seat of a number of United Nations offices and various international institutions, including the all-important Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Vienna is also the seat of a number of charitable organizations, including SOS Children's Villages, founded in 1949. Today this organization serves 132 countries and territories worldwide.

Meanwhile, record warmth in recent years -- with autumn temperatures in Austria prevailing even in winter -- has brought home the profound threat of a climate change in the country's ski industry.

Climatologists in Vienna announced in 2008 that the warming trend will be drastic by 2020. In reports filed, these experts said that the Austrian Alps are warming twice as fast as the average in the rest of the world. They claimed that in 1980, 75% of alpine glaciers were advancing. By 2008, 90% were retreating.

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