Neutral Austria under pressure to be tougher with Russia

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Austria has come under heavy criticism for granting visas that will allow sanctioned Russian politicians to attend a meeting in Vienna of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation (OSCE) in Europe.

The issue highlights the delicate balancing act the European country has engaged in while trying to maintain its longstanding position of military neutrality during the war in Ukraine.

The Austrian government has condemned Russia’s invasion but also stressed the need to maintain diplomatic relations with Moscow.

Austria hosts several UN agencies and international organisations such as the OSCE, which was established during the Cold War as a forum for dialogue between East and West.

Russia is one of the 57 nations in North America, Europe and Asia that participate in the Vienna-based organisation.

Moscow plans to send delegates to the meeting of the OSCE’s Parliamentary Assembly on February 23 and 24, including 15 Russian politicians who are under European Union sanctions. Among them are deputy Duma chairman Pyotr Tolstoy and fellow member of parliament Leonid Slutsky.

“It is important to remember that Russian parliamentarians are an integral part of the power system and complicit in the crimes Russia commits every day in Ukraine,” read the letter, which was seen by The Associated Press.

“They have no place in an institution tasked with promoting sincere dialogue and opposition to the war.”

The US delegates to the Parliamentary Assembly were not among the letter’s signatories.

US Ambassador to the OSCE Michael Carpenter told reporters on Friday that the Russian delegates “are not people who deserve to be able to travel to Western countries”.

However, he added that it is “up to the Austrian government to determine whether they are going to grant visas or not”.

Austrian officials have not commented on the letter.

On February 5, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg defended the country’s decision to allow the sanctioned Russians entry, arguing that it is important to keep channels of communication with Moscow open despite the “brutal Russian attack against Ukraine”.

The Austrian Foreign Ministry also insisted that, as host to the OSCE headquarters in Vienna, it is legally obliged to grant visas to representatives of nations who want to take part in meetings there.

Austria, which became a European Union member in 1995, has criticised Moscow and joined the sanctions the EU imposed against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine.

But, unlike Finland and Sweden, which decided to abandon their non-aligned stances in May by applying to join Nato, Austria remains committed to the military neutrality it adopted in 1955.

The Austrian government has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine but no weapons.

Austria Neutrality
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer became the first and so far only EU leader to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin face to face after the war in Ukraine started (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

He travelled to Moscow in April 2022 in a fruitless attempt to persuade the Russian leader to end the invasion.

Support remains strong for Austrian neutrality among the public and political establishment.

“I believe that Austrian neutrality can still play a positive role today,” said Ralph Janik, an expert in international law and a researcher at the Sigmund Freud private university in Vienna.

“The alternative would be to join Nato, but every single Austrian politician is very well aware that this is not supported by the majority of the Austrian public.”

Austria, which was annexed by Nazi Germany in the run-up to the Second World War, declared neutrality after the war under pressure from Western allies and the Soviet Union. It sought a role as a mediator between East and West and developed ties with Moscow during and after the Cold War.

In 1968, Austria became the first Western European country to import gas from the Soviet Union, and its dependence on Russian energy increased in the following decades.

Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 80% of Austria’s natural gas came from Russia. It has since reduced the share to just over 20% by turning to Norwegian gas, according to Austria’s regulator for electricity and gas.

The Austrian banking system is also closely connected to Russia.

Austria’s second-largest bank, the Raiffeisenbank International, earned more than half of its profits in 2022 from Russia.

The bank has come under intense pressure for continuing its business in Russia despite Moscow’s war against Ukraine, and is currently evaluating strategic options, including an exit from Russia.

Vienna is also known to be a playground for spies, including from Russia, due to its lenient espionage laws.

Despite its initial reluctance, Austria has expelled eight Russian diplomats who are believed to have been engaged in spying since the start of the Russian war against Ukraine.

Austria Neutrality
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vienna during a visit to Austria in June 2018 (Ronald Zak/AP)

Werner Fasslabend, a former Austrian defence minister from the conservative People’s Party, is among the few prominent voices arguing in favour of the country renouncing neutrality and joining Nato.

With the end of the Cold War and Austria’s accession to the EU, Austrian neutrality has “lost its function”, said Mr Fasslabend, who is director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy.

As a Nato member, Austria would “be in a better position to shape European security policy and will gain greater security”, he added, admitting however that it is unlikely to happen given it would require changing the constitution by a two-thirds majority in the Austrian parliament.

“This majority is not within sight,” he said.

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