Austria, Russia keep in step ahead of polls

Vienna (AFP) –


As Austrians go to the polls Sunday, one image that stands out from the last right-wing administration is that of the foreign minister dancing with Russian President Vladimir Putin at her wedding, causing widespread derision in the small Alpine country and abroad.

With conservative Sebastian Kurz tipped again to take power, possibly in another coalition with the far-right, the EU member's historically strong relationship with Russia is likely to endure.

"Austria fills a void left by Berlin, whose relations with the Kremlin have deteriorated in recent years. More than ever, Moscow perceives it (Vienna) as reliable," Peter Schulze, a Russia expert from Germany's Goettingen University, told AFP.

Indirectly, Russia was implicated in the downfall of Kurz's government four months ago in a corruption scandal, leading to the snap polls to be called.

A secretly recorded video released by German media in May showed then vice-chancellor and far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache appearing to offer public contracts in exchange for campaign help to a woman, who duped him into thinking she was the niece of a Russian oligarch.

Strache resigned from all posts after the set-up of yet unknown origins came to light, though his far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) hopes to renew the coalition with Kurz's People's Party (OeVP) formed after the last elections in 2017.

- 'Long-time partner' -

According to Paul Schmidt of the Austrian Society for European Politics, there is a "cross-party consensus", even among the Social Democrats (SPOe), to have close ties with Moscow -- an eagerness dictated by economic interests -- while western Europe is mostly wary of the Kremlin.

Kurz, who took power in 2017 at the age of 31, chose Moscow as the destination of his first official visit outside of the European Union in February 2018.

Putin returned the courtesy almost four months later, describing Austria as a "long-time partner" on his sixth official visit to the central European country of 8.8 million people.

Austria was the first EU member to receive him after Russia's controversial annexation of the Crimea region in 2014.

Putin's frequent visits even caused US President Donald Trump to question Kurz about it when he visited the White House in early 2019, according to a source close to the OeVP.

"Sebastian Kurz told him that he had to secure Austria's energy needs and that Russia had proved to be a reliable interlocutor... while the United States has not presented any alternatives," the official told AFP.

Vienna and Moscow extended their gas contract last year for twenty years. When it was signed more than half a century ago, it was the first such contract signed between the Soviet Union and a Western European country.

"It remains important for us to keep up the dialogue with Russia, in line with the common European position," Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, a government spokesman under Kurz and former diplomat, told AFP.

Last year, Austria refused to expel Russian diplomats over the poisoning of a former double agent in Britain in March 2018, breaking ranks with other Western countries after London blamed Moscow for the incident.

Karin Kneissl, the FPOe-nominated foreign minister in the last administration, even invited Putin to her wedding. The FPOe has a cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia party.

Both sides insisted the invitation was a private matter. But widely circulated photos of Kneissl bowing to Putin after their dance raised questions of Austria's neutrality.

Putin, who speaks excellent German and was commissioned by the Soviet secret service in East Germany between 1985 and 1989, has skied several times in the Austrian Alps.

- Mozart and the tsar-

The close relationship has a long history.

As early as 1698, Russian tsar Peter the Great came to Austria to establish diplomatic relations between the two neighbouring empires.

Before World War I, the Habsburg dynasty and the Romanov house shared a common border, and composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart gave concerts in front of the tsar's ambassador.

After World War II, occupied by the allies, Austria served as a buffer throughout the Cold War. Soviet and US leaders met in Vienna in 1961 and 1979.

Multilateral negotiations also often take place in Vienna, home to many United Nations and other international organisations, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).