Putin in Vienna

The EU May Squirm, But Austria Just Gets Down to Business

News | Colin Leigh Peters | June 2007

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Vienna May 23-24 may have come at a time of deteriorating relations between Russia and the West.

However, bonds between Austria and Russia are in good shape, and the trip not only gave the smiling Russian premier the chance to feed Vienna’s famed Lipizzaners a few sugar cubes, but also for his accompanying trade delegation to feed Austrian business with some very sweet contracts.

The increasing strain in relations between the Eastern and Western poles of Europe was evident at the Russia-EU summit in the city of Samara the week before. The Kremlin’s attempts to stymie demonstrations, despite acquiescing to Germany’s request to let them proceed, drew public criticism from German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, a rebuke in turn censored in Russia.

It is precisely Russia’s attitude towards human rights, along with the recent testing of a new ballistic missile and its efforts to  consolidate hegemony over European fuel supplies and, which are worrying Western observers. Russia too feels that it has cause for complaint, citing NATO expansion and proposed American missile defences as just two grounds.

In contrast to other EU members, Austria seems to occupy a middle ground, perhaps returning to the neutrality that protected it for centuries. There was some muted criticism of Russia’s human rights record during Putin’s visit, and the Russian president himself admitted that his country should listen to such criticism. At the same time, he was quick to point out that human rights regulations are not perfectly applied in any country, and in the case of Austria he pointed to the treatment of immigrants, in particular of Africans, who face almost impenetrable hurdles to assimilation.

One particular incident during the Russian president’s visit perhaps lent weight to his argument; a Danish cartoonist was arrested at Karlsplatz underground station on the grounds of a alleged incitement to commit a crime, according to reports from the Vienna based International Press Institute (IPI). The cartoonist, Jan Egesborg, had been putting up posters featuring Putin within a target, questioning his complicity in the shooting of journalists. His arrest on tenuous and perhaps contrived grounds echoed the much denounced arrests of Russian protestors at the Samara summit a week before.

However, behind Austria’s unwillingness to rock any boats is an attempt to maintain good relations in light of the large boost in investment that accompanied the visit. According to the Austrian daily the Kurier, the trade delegation that joined Putin on the trip left behind contracts worth three billion euros for Austrian firms. This was in the form of no less than 35 different investment and cooperation agreements, and a sum representing half of all annual foreign direct investment in Austria.

It is no surprise then that Austrian Federal Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer spoke of a new quality in economic relations between the two countries. Given Russia’s increasing economic might, she could prove a valuable ally. However, with increased ties comes increased dependency, and given the comparative size of the two countries, it is clear who stands to gain more in economic terms and therefore who has more to lose should things turn sour.

How this may play out on the political stage is unclear. Will Austrian relations with Russia make her a valuable mediator in the East/West disputes that are looming in the months to come? Or will her reluctance to come out as vocally as her European counterparts lead to accusation of cohesion breaking? Time will tell.

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