Austria and Russia have continued to develop bilateral relations between their two nations and continue to attach significant importance to those ongoing relationships. Despite the obvious issues relating to EU sanctions against Russia which has seen a drop of about 25% in trade turnover between the nations. However and somewhat surprisingly, Russian exports to Austria actually showed a marginal increase over the previous year. Russia has for some time been one of the largest investors in Austria’s economy and likewise, Austrian companies have invested considerable resources and finance into Russia’s economy.
In February 2016, Nikolay Kovalev, a member of the Russian delegation said that the Austrian Foreign Ministry allowed Russian parliamentarians who are named in the sanctions list to enter the country for attendance at a session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE PA).
On April 6th 2016, the Austrian President Heinz Fischer meet with Putin at the Kremlin to discuss bilateral trades and integration into multilateral trades within the framework of the EU and other ongoing matters of joint concern. This was their seventh meeting together in 2 years. It was clear that the primary purpose of the visit was to discuss the cooperation between Moscow and Vienna once Russia lifts its food imports restrictions. Austrian agricultural exports had dropped by 50 percent since the introduction of the Russian food embargo, imposed as a countermeasure to the EU sanctions against Russia and Vienna was keen to see progress towards ending this impasse.
Fischer when asked about the sanctions said the following: “I always, anywhere, frankly tell that the sanctions are something that is disadvantageous for both parties.” Whilst he added that Austria remains a loyal member of the European Union, he continued by saying “Our position in these [EU] discussions [on anti-Russia sanctions] includes that it is necessary to consider all the possibilities of relationship development between Russia and the European Union. The most important part is that it is necessary to find such a path, a common way for all of us, to develop it, which would result in the soon removal of most of the sanctions.” As ever one has to wonder what was exactly said behind closed doors.
What was particularly interesting at the time of this visit was that the Chief of the General Staff of the Austrian Armed Forces, Lt. Gen. Othmar Commenda said that Russia for Austria is much closer than other great powers. He stated that Austrian Armed forces wished to develop cooperation with Russia, despite recommendations of other world powers. His following statement, implied a split with NATO policy, albeit in couched terms, when he said “I’m not going to follow the guidance and obey someone’s orders with whom to communicate and do not communicate. It is the reason why I wanted to visit you,” expressing gratitude for the invitation to visit Russia. He continued, “Only together we can solve these problems, and Russia for Austria is much closer than other great powers. We are ready to work together within our abilities where it makes sense.” Commenda also stated that he was interested in Gerasimov’s, the chief of the general staff of the Russian Federation, personal assessment of the situation in the Middle East.
Putin and Fischer also spoken in a press conference about the refugee and migration crisis. Austria had reversed previous policy decisions deciding to restrict migrants and refugees trying to enter or stay in the country and the necessity to provide people with opportunities in their own regions. Both presidents agreed on the need to cooperate more on an international level on the Syrian War and against Islamic terrorism.
Prior to these meetings, Christoph Leitl, a member of the Austrian People’s Party and president of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber stated that western sanctions against Russia made no sense saying , “If a doctor has been using a therapy for two years, and it is not working, it is time to think about it.” He expressed regret that certain quarters within Europe still think that the “policy of threats is the only option.” Leitl was keen to emphasise that Russia is one of the most important partners for Brussels, highlighting the constructive role Russia played in the Iranian nuclear talks and their extensive contributions to resolving the Syrian crisis.
In May 2016, Emil Brix, the Austrian Ambassador to Russia said that Austria proposed to Russia that they develop and expand the existing mechanisms of bilateral trade and economic cooperation. He stated that, “For improving [our] trade relations, we, I think, are well advised to use all the existing platforms that we have. And between Russia and Austria we have joint economic commission, we have business councils, and these are the instruments we should further develop and expand.” He concluded that the trade turnover between Russia and Austria is still being impacted although Russia’s exports to Austria increased by 1.6 percent inÂ 2015. He also added that it was also important to develop inter-regional cooperation between Russia and Austria via the creation of platforms for cooperation with “dynamic Russian regions” which would serve both countries’ interests.
In June 2016, members from three of the Austria’s political parties, the SPO, OVP and the Greens voted in favour of submitting an application to change the nature of the sanctions in place against Russia and in favour of a graduated model. The Vice-President of Austria’s National Council, Karl Heinz Kopf, said that the sanctions had not achieved their objective whilst highlighting the negative economic impact for both sides. The proposed graduated model would link the sanctions to implementation of the Minsk agreement, so the sanctions would be eased off as progress is made. Minister Kurz voiced his regret that the sanctions were extended by the EU without discussion when it seemed time to strengthen ties with Russia once more.
Despite their public persona, it is known that Austria has been in secret talks with nations such as Germany, Holland and Finland about forming a union outside the EU and the Euro currency via the adoption of a proposed gold backed currency. Developments in 2016 further strengthen the view that Austria also wishes to rotate east, not just economically but also militarily. The comments by Commenda are as clear an indication that it wishes to work outside the framework of NATO as you could possibly get short of creating a major diplomatic incident. In isolation these types of meetings may seem run of the mill, but in a broader context they are paving the way for the disintegration of the old paradigm and their archaic institutions such as NATO and the EU and the adoption of a new paradigm via a multipolar world which seeks to have an inclusive approach to dealing with economic, social, political and security issues.