Bridge builder Why Austria seems to be cozying up to Russia

Austria has distanced itself from international efforts to isolate Russia over its alleged poisoning of a spy in Britain. The gambit has historical reasons, but could easily backfire on the country's young chancellor.
Puppet, master, or something in between?

Sebastian Kurz did his best to evoke Austria’s post-war history as a neutral nation. While Austria “stands behind” an EU statement condemning Russia’s alleged poisoning of a former spy in Britain, the Austrian chancellor politely declined to join the action: Vienna would not be expelling any Russian diplomats, preferring to “keep channels of communication open.”

The decision last week was criticized by Western allies. Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesperson for Angela Merkel's conservatives in the German parliament, warned against "closing our eyes" to Vladimir Putin's "corrupt and kleptocratic regime." Yet it’s hardly the first controversial move from Europe’s youngest leader. Mr. Kurz, 31, sits atop a coalition government that includes the far-right Freedom Party, and has challenged the orthodoxy of western European allies on issues ranging from immigration to EU integration.

Why does this matter? Austria, with a population of under 9 million, is hardly a global diplomatic heavyweight. Yet its role in Europe is still unique. Mr. Kurz speaks of Austria’s tradition as a “bridge builder” between East and West. And in the second half of this year, Austria will take over the rotating chair of the EU Council, a key legislative arm of the European Union, at a crucial time for the continent.

Neutrality and good ties with Russia are virtually synonymous within Austria’s political class. Franz-Stefan Gary, EastWest Institute

Neutrality alone is not an argument. Three non-NATO countries — Ireland, Finland and Sweden — followed the EU lead in expelling Russian diplomats from their capitals. (Switzerland, a neutral non-EU member, also declined to expel any diplomats.) More to the point is that Austria’s neutrality is inextricably linked to Russia.

After World War II, the Allies occupied Austria just as they did Germany. But in Germany, the Soviets retained control over the communist East. In Austria, by contrast, they withdrew in 1955. The main reason was that Austria, unlike West Germany, declared itself neutral. Since then, “neutrality and good ties with Russia are virtually synonymous within Austria’s political class,” writes Franz-Stefan Gady of the EastWest Institute.

Austria also has deep economic and energy ties with Russia, maintained despite economic sanctions imposed in recent years. But there is also another, more disconcerting, factor. This is the role of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which is the junior coalition partner to Mr. Kurz’s conservative People’s Party in government.

Heinz-Christian Strache, deputy chancellor and leader of the FPÖ, signed a “cooperation pact” with the United Russia party of President Vladimir Putin in 2016. Party lawmakers have since visited the disputed Crimea peninsula that was annexed from Ukraine. Many FPÖ politicians have called for an end to sanctions. This past week they have spoken out against “escalation” in the Russo-British spying dispute.

For his part, Mr. Kurz has been less openly Russia-friendly. He supports maintaining sanctions and denounced the Crimea visits by his coalition partners, though he also made Moscow one of his first visits (pictured) after becoming chancellor. At that February meeting, he proposed that Austria lead a UN peacekeeping mission to monitor a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine. Yet whatever the Austrian chancellor's own motivations, the voices from the far-right flank could certainly undermine his ability to be a neutral bridge builder for the West.

Mr. Kurz has taken other decisions that straddle the line between populism and pragmatism. Though Austria took in more refugees per capita than any western EU country bar Sweden during the 2015 crisis, Mr. Kurz controversially ended the flow by closing Austria’s border. Though he insists he is pro-European, Mr. Kurz has spoken out forcefully against deeper EU integration. He has also sought close ties with the Visegrad nations of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia, including those criticized by Brussels for autocratic tendencies.

All of this could be seen in two ways: Mr. Kurz is either a populist in centrist clothing, or a motivated alliance seeker who just might find a way to keep relations with East and West intact. There’s a very fine line between building bridges and burning them.

Christopher Cermak is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin and a dual Austrian-American citizen. Moritz Koch in Berlin and Hans-Peter Siebenhaar in Vienna contributed to this piece. To contact the author: [email protected]