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12th Apr 2021

Austrian ex-minister joins list of EU's pro-Kremlin lobbyists

  • Former foreign minister Karin Kneissl (r) made headlines by dancing with Putin at her wedding in 2018 (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

Austria's ex-foreign minister Karin Kneissl has joined an ever-expanding list of senior Austrian and German politicians working as Kremlin lobbyists.

The 56-year old, who led Austria's diplomacy between 2017 and 2019, is to become a board member of Russian state oil firm Rosneft, in a move announced by Moscow on Tuesday (3 March).

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The firm is run by one of Russian president Vladimir Putin's closest friends, Igor Sechin.

It is under EU and US sanctions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine and lost an EU court appeal to get off the blacklist last year.

It was already controversial back in 2007 when it took over the assets of Russian oil firm Yukos, after Russia bankrupted Yukos and jailed its owner, Mikhail Khodorkovksy, for political reasons.

"I don't give interviews," Kneissl told the Austrian press agency, APA, on Tuesday.

But she had been less media-shy in recent times, in her role as a commentator for Russian propaganda outlet RT since leaving her ministerial post.

Kneissl, who hails from Austria's far-right and pro-Russian FPÖ party, made headlines in 2018 when Putin went to her wedding in Germany and danced with her in front of photographers.

Prior to that, she also bad-mouthed Arab migrants and top EU and German officials in what were normal FPÖ talking points.

It is unclear how much she will earn at Rosneft, but one of her new colleagues there, former German chancellor and Rosneft board member Gerhard Schröder, is paid some €600,000 a year, according to German media.

Schröder is a vocal advocate for Russian interests in Europe, such as the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany.

He still has clout in Germany's second largest political party, the SPD.

Meanwhile, Kneissl is a minor asset by comparison.

Her FPÖ party was kicked out of government in disgrace in 2019 after its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was taped in a media sting offering state contracts to Russian firms in return for party donations

But Kneissl's elevation to Rosneft was still trumpeted by Russian state media on Tuesday as the recruitment of a "respected European politician".

Her appointment was in fact made in late February, but unveiled publicly one day after the EU and US imposed new sanctions on Russia over its jailing of opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

Vienna is one of the most Kremlin-friendly capitals in Europe and was already mistrusted by Russia-wary EU countries in the east.

It is co-financing Nord Stream 2 and its top banks have extensive interests in Russia.

But if the Kneissl-move was also meant to cause deeper division in the EU, it changes little in terms of Austria's sleazy reputation for Russian 'revolving doors'.

Its former chancellor, Christian Kern, from the centre-left SPÖ party, joined the board of Russian railway firm RZD in 2019.

Another ex-chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, from the ruling, centre-right ÖVP party, became a board member of Russian oil firm Lukoil the same year.

And Austria's former finance minister, Jörg Schelling (ÖVP), joined Russian energy firm Gazprom in 2018.

Strache scandal: how big a hit will Austrian far-right take?

This is a political crisis unprecedented in Austria since the war: the resignation of the vice-chancellor, firing of the interior minister, the mass resignation of FPO ministers, a snap election, and a no-confidence vote in the Austrian parliament on Monday.

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