Russian deputies set foot on European Union soil this Thursday for the first time since the invasion of Ukraine, thanks to the granting of visas from Austria which, despite criticism, did not stray from its traditional closeness to Moscow.
But while Austrian companies maintain privileged ties, the government seems to have turned its back on the Kremlin after years of friendly relations.
The delegation headed by Pyotr Tolstoy, vice-president of the Dumathe Lower House of the Russian Parliament, arrived in Vienna to attend the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Austria claims to be linked to an “international agreement” with this body based in its capital and obliged to authorize the participation of these deputies, even if they are subject to sanctions from the European Unionaccording to a statement from his Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
However, in the two previous sessions in the United Kingdom and Poland last year, the organizing countries did not grant any visas to Russians and, unlike this time, the media were authorized to access the meeting.
This difference in treatment caused criticism of Austria from parliamentarians from 20 countries, in addition to Ukraine and Lithuania’s boycott of the eventcelebrated in parallel with the anniversary of the start of the invasion of Russia.
Neutrality and dialogue
“The timing is very unfortunate,” admitted Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg in a recent televised interview. “But we need platforms for dialogue” like the OSCE, established in 1975 and with 57 member countries, often with divergent positions.
With this same intention of maintaining ties, the Austrian head of government, Karl Nehammer, initially tried to mediate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and even traveled to Moscow in April 2022.
“Actually, Austria has clearly broken with Moscow since the start of the war and unhesitatingly sided with kyiv.”, explains Gerhard Mangott, professor of international relations at the University of Innsbruck.
The government, made up of environmentalists and conservatives, expelled several diplomats suspected of espionage in early February, in a very rare move for Vienna. And support for kyiv is unequivocal though the country cannot contribute weapons due to its status of military neutrality.
Austria provides humanitarian aid and hosts tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.
A waltz with Putin
But for a long time, Austria, with diplomatic relations with Moscow since 1698, deployed the red carpet to putinwho even danced a waltz at a minister’s wedding in 2018.
Occupied by the allies after World War II, it served as a mediator during the Cold War. Khrushev shook hands with Kennedy there in 1961 and Brezhnev with Carter in 1979.
And it was in Austria that the Soviet Union signed its first gas contract with a Western country, in the late 1960s.
Before the conflict, Vienna imported almost 80% of its gas from Russia.
The hydrocarbon company OMV and the energy drink company Red Bull froze their investments in Russia but left that market.
Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelenski also denounced the maintenance of the activity of the Raiffeisen bank, one of the most important entities in Russia.
Austria maintains its principle of military neutrality and does not want to join NATO as Sweden or Finland have done.
But Russia is equally “very irritated by the government’s new line,” Mangott says. Moscow accused Vienna in mid-February of undermining its status as an “impartial and neutral platform state for international diplomacy.”
(With information from AFP / by Blaise Gauquelin)
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