Austria FM vows to keep friendly ties with Russia


Moscow (AFP)

Austria's foreign minister, who caused controversy last year by inviting Vladimir Putin to her wedding, said in Moscow on Tuesday Austria wanted to maintain good ties with Russia despite EU sanctions.

Karin Kneissl met her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov four months after she cancelled a trip to Moscow over a spy scandal that soured relations between the two countries.

"We support the principles of the EU, but we try to keep strong ties with Russia," Kneissl told journalists following talks with Lavrov.

Vienna and Moscow "traditionally have great bilateral relations", she added.

Lavrov said Austria was an "important partner" for Russia, praising their businessmen for "not leaving the Russian market, despite (EU) sanctions".

Kneissl did, however, call on Moscow to release 24 Ukrainian sailors held in Russia since last year. They were captured together with their vessels off Crimea in November, despite protests from Kiev and the West.

In November, Kneissl cancelled a trip to Moscow after Austria said it uncovered an Austrian colonel suspected of spying for Russia since the 1990s.

Russia condemned these accusations as "unfounded", and on Tuesday Lavrov criticised Austria for "suddenly deciding to publicly accuse the Russian Federation" over the alleged spy affair.

In an interview published Monday by the Russian paper Kommersant, Kneissl said she had a good personal relationship with Lavrov because of their cigarette breaks together.

But it is her relationship with the Russian president that has made waves in the West.

Putin's appearance as a guest at Kneissl's wedding in 2018 and her dance with the Russian leader there fuelled questions about her neutrality.

Kneissl appeared to bow in front of the Russian leader after the dance, causing more furore.

European intelligence services have distanced themselves from Vienna, according to some media reports.

Kneissl was nominated foreign minister by the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), which took power in a coalition government in late 2017.

The FPOe has had a "cooperation pact" with Putin's United Russia party since 2016.

Austria is officially neutral and is not part of the NATO military alliance.

Last year it set itself apart from a number of other EU countries by not expelling Russian diplomats over the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain, which many EU states laid at Russia's door.