Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Austria today, his last friend among the western European EU states, for talks with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and President Alexander Van der Bellen.
The country’s new government of conservatives and populists, headed by the youthful Mr. Kurz, 32, is more pro-Russian than ever due to the presence of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party in the coalition formed last December.
Deputy Prime Minister Hans-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom Party, went as far as to agree to a “cooperation pact” with Mr. Putin’s United Russia party. It’s no coincidence that Austria, unlike virtually all the other EU member states, decided not to expel Russian diplomats after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain.
Mr. Kurz’s government has emerged as one of the biggest advocates in the EU for a more constructive relationship with Russia, and that approach will likely impact the EU when Austria takes over the rotating presidency of the bloc from Bulgaria on July 1.
Come July, the EU will also have to decide whether to keep its sanctions against Russia in place for Moscow’s unlawful annexation of Crimea — or whether to risk a rapprochement with the Russian strongman. It’s an open secret in Vienna that Mr. Kurz wants to lobby the EU to loosen the sanctions, but he'll need the support of Germany and France.
“It’s high time that we end these wretched sanctions and normalize our political and economic relations with Russia,” Mr. Strache, Austria’s deputy chancellor, told Austrian newspaper “Österreich.”
Austria, a neutral country that does not belong to NATO, has long seen itself as a bridge between East and West.
Mr. Putin has even called Mr. Kurz a “friend” and, given Europe’s mounting anger with Mr. Trump, the Russian leader has spotted a chance to drive a wedge between the EU and the US. Mr. Putin’s trip to Vienna is the second in four years, and his sixth visit overall.
The EU’s hard line on Russia is already starting to soften and there’s an increasing readiness among EU leaders to engage with Russia, especially after President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on European steel and aluminum, and his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
Austria, a neutral country that does not belong to NATO, has long seen itself as a bridge between East and West. The 2015 Iran deal was partly negotiated in Vienna, and Mr. Kurz, who was foreign minister at the time, was proud of Austria’s contribution to the agreement that raised the prospect of billions of euros worth of contracts, not just for German and French companies, but Austrian ones as well.
One focus for Mr. Putin during his visit is the controversial second underwater Baltic Sea pipeline to import gas from Russia, Nord Stream 2, which Ms. Merkel recently cast doubt on when she said it could not go forward if it left Ukraine empty-handed. But the Austrian government is in favor of the project, not least because Austrian energy group OMV, in which the government has a direct stake, has already invested hundreds of millions of euros.
Mr. Kurz, meanwhile, is scheduled to visit Ms. Merkel in Berlin on June 12. There he will meet another fan, Donald Trump’s new ambassador to Berlin, Richard Grenell, who called the Austrian leader a “rockstar” in an interview with conservative news website Breitbart on Sunday. "I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders," said Mr. Grenell.
He even plans to host a lunch for Mr. Kurz at his residence next week – a gesture that is raising eyebrows in Berlin.
Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt's correspondent in Vienna and specializes in media and telecommunications coverage. To contact the author: [email protected]