Friday

20th Sep 2019

Analysis

From Russia (to Austria) with love?

  • It will be hard for EU members to consider Austria a neutral broker. (Photo: kremlin.ru)

Last weekend's pictures were hard to put into context, even for long-time observers of Austrian politics.

Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl got married at a vineyard in the picturesque Styrian hills of southern Austria on Saturday (18 August), but what was originally supposed to be a private affair turned into a highly political event with implications for Austria and Europe at the same time.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Russian troops left Austria in 1955 on the condition that it would become a neutral country and not join any military alliance. (Photo: Bob Usher)

Kneissl not only invited Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the conservative Austrian People's Party (OVP) and vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

There was also a foreign guest who attracted all the attention: Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Putin sat next to the couple as they exchanged vows. Afterwards the Russian president delivered a speech in perfect German, wishing the bridal couple "much, much luck and health for their future together".

There was also a Russian Cossack choir dressed in bright red traditional clothes, Putin's personal wedding gift to the bride and groom.

The Russian leader even briefly danced with the bride, at the end of which the Austrian foreign minister went down on her knees in front of the Russian president in an apparent attempt to thank him for his presence.

These controversial pictures emerged only the day after the wedding, when they were released by Russia Today, an international television network funded by the Russian government.

Political love affair

The Austrian foreign ministry continues to maintain that the wedding was a private affair and that the Russian president was a private guest.

Yet, politics are never private love affairs. They are made up of hard facts and clear-cut, national interests.

So what were the interests on both sides here?

It is evident that for the Russian president, the Austrian foreign minister's wedding was a perfect platform to portray himself as being accepted in the West. And Russia Today was right on hand to deliver the ideal images for that.

Russia also has strong interests in cultivating a favourable relationship with Austria, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU.

On several occasions, the Austrian far-right FPO - which nominated Kneissl to become foreign minister and which is currently in a ruling coalition with the OVP – voiced support for lifting sanctions on Russia.

Austria was also among the very few countries not to expel any Russian diplomats following the Skripal poisoning in the UK in March.

Because of these factors, Russia considers Austria as an ally with leverage in the EU.

When it comes to the Austrian interests, there is of course the economy.

Over 700 Austrian companies are operating in Russia. According to the Austrian chamber of commerce, Austria's foreign direct investment in Russia amounted to around $7bn in 2017, despite the sanctions regime.

Austria also hosts an important gas distribution hub in the east of the country and receives about 85 percent of its gas from Russia.

Meanwhile, Vienna and Moscow have enjoyed a special relationship since the immediate post-World War II period. Russian troops left Austria in 1955 on condition that it would become a neutral country and would not join any military alliance.

Ever since, neutrality has gone hand-in-hand with good relations with Moscow. This is a policy that is largely supported across party lines.

Delicate balancing act

The strong relations between the two countries were also highlighted at the beginning of June, when Putin chose Austria as his first official working visit abroad since being re-elected Russian president in March.

During one of his previous official visits to Austria in 2001, Putin was invited to an exclusive ski resort, where he vacationed with his family and late Austrian president Thomas Klestil and his wife Margot Klestil-Loffler.

The close personal ties between Loffler-Klestil and Putin exist until this day.

It is believed that Klestil-Loffler, who is now a special representative at the Austrian foreign ministry for Russia, pulled the strings behind the scenes, and was instrumental in bringing Putin to Kneissl's wedding.

This shows there is some historical context and also precedents for Putin in Austria at official and private meetings at the same time.

The special relationship between the two countries aside, the pictures that emerged from the wedding are a symbol of a policy that seems to fail all too often.

Keeping a special relationship with Russia while being a member of the EU is a delicate balancing act. By courting Russia all too blatantly, Austria risks to lose its credibility as a bridge builder and honest broker.

Chancellor Kurz, who held a short working meeting with Putin in his limousine en route back from the wedding to Graz airport, is very determined about Austria's bridge building role.

The Austrian government had also worked hard to bring Putin's recent summit with US leader Donald Trump to Vienna, which in the end was held in Helsinki.

All of this work now risks to be undermined severely by the controversial pictures that emerged from the wedding.

It will be hard for EU members to consider Austria a neutral broker. It will also be difficult for countries in between, such as Ukraine, to respect Austria as a mediator.

This loss in credibility cannot be in Austria's interest.

As Andreas Schieder from the Austrian social democratic party asked: "how is Austria's presidency of the EU meant to live up to the government's own claims of building bridges and being an honest broker when Austria's foreign minister and chancellor are so obviously on one side?".

The Austrian government will need to find answers to this question if it wants to avoid alienating EU partners further during its presidency.

A neutral broker is in fact needed more than ever.

Mediation is not only necessary between the West and Russia but also with regard to other important upcoming issues on the EU agenda, such as migration and the integration of the Western Balkans.

Stephanie Liechtenstein is a diplomatic correspondent and freelance journalist based in Vienna, Austria

Analysis

Will Austria's presidency give EU a populist push?

As Sebastian Kurz's government takes over the helm of EU-policy making for the next six months, Austrian MEPs from opposing sides weigh in on the EU's youngest prime minister's possible influence on the continent's future.

Opinion

Sebastian Kurz - Austria's young master of reinvention?

Has the long decline of Austria's mainstream parties finally come to an end? The centre-right People's Party seems to have successfully reinvented itself...or has it simply stolen the far-right Freedom Party's clothes?

News in Brief

  1. Ireland: right Brexit deal is 'not yet close'
  2. UK secrecy on Brexit holds back wider EU talks
  3. Feminist mass protest in Spain after 19 murders this summer
  4. Global climate strike starts ahead of UN summit
  5. UK Brexit minister to meet Barnier on Friday
  6. Russia-Ukraine gas deal talks show 'progress'
  7. Nobel economist: Ireland 'not good EU citizen' on taxes
  8. Germany takes carbon border tax on board

Column

These are the crunch issues for the 2019-2024 EU commission

These developments will largely determine who will be running the world in the coming decades and perhaps generations. If the Europeans can't find an answer over the five years, they will be toast. And we haven't even mentioned climate change.

Podcast

Trumpworld In Europe

Pastors and plutocrats are sponsoring an ultra-conservative agenda in Europe. Many of them have links to Donald Trump.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  2. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  3. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  6. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  8. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  9. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  10. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  11. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat

Latest News

  1. Nine EU 'commissioners' asked to clarify declarations
  2. Dismiss Italy's Salvini at your peril
  3. Malta PM accused of 'blackmail' over slain reporter
  4. Diplomats back Romania's Kovesi for EU top prosecutor
  5. Brexit raises questions for EU defence integration
  6. Low-carbon cities can unlock €21tn by 2050, report finds
  7. France, Italy want 'automatic' distribution of migrants
  8. Europe's refugee policy is test of its true 'way of life'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  4. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  5. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  8. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  2. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  4. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  6. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  7. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us