Austria walks fine line over granting visas to Russian MPs


Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg.

Thierry Monasse, Getty Images

  • In their first trip to the EU since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian MPs are due at an international meeting in Austria.
  • EU member Austria said it would not bar the Russian delegation from a meeting in Vienna by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, citing its legal obligation as host to the OSCE seat.
  • The UK and Poland refused visas to Russians attending OSCE meetings they hosted last year.

In their first trip to the EU since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian MPs are due at an international meeting in Austria on Thursday despite sanctions and a planned boycott by Kyiv.

EU member Austria said it would not bar the Russian delegation from a meeting in Vienna by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, citing its legal obligation as host to the OSCE seat.

But Ukraine and European Union member Lithuania have said they would boycott the meeting over the participation of the Russian delegation headed by Pyotr Tolstoy, deputy chairman of the Russian parliament’s lower house, who is under international sanctions.

“They (Russians) are not interested in discussion, dialogue. They are coming only for propaganda,” Ukraine delegation head Mykyta Poturaiev told reporters in Vienna on Wednesday.

He added:

It is unacceptable to have in common meetings people who are responsible, who voted for this war.

Ukraine was joined by 19 other countries to protest the Russian parliamentarians’ attendance in a letter sent to the Austrian government at the beginning of February.

‘Unfortunate date’¬†

It is the first time Tolstoy and another sanctioned parliamentarian will travel officially to an EU country since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, exactly one year ago.

The UK and Poland refused visas to Russians attending OSCE meetings they hosted last year but Austria has said it is “obliged under international law to grant entry to the delegates” as host to the OSCE headquarters.

“The date is very unfortunate,” Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg conceded in an interview with broadcaster ORF ahead of the invasion anniversary.

He added:

But at the same time, we must not disregard the fact that we need platforms. The OSCE has never been an organisation of like-minded people.

The OSCE was founded in 1957 to foster relations between the Western and Eastern blocs and its current 57 members include NATO countries and allies of Moscow.

Austria is also a member.

As a militarily neutral country that is not a member of NATO, it has nonetheless firmly condemned the invasion.

And even though it has not provided arms to Kyiv, it has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine and hosts tens of thousands of refugees.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer is one of the few Western leaders who has met Russian President Vladimir Putin since the invasion, saying he wanted to push for an end to the conflict.

But ties with Moscow further soured earlier this month when Austria expelled four Russian diplomats, including two accredited with the United Nations in Vienna, saying they acted “in a manner incompatible with their diplomatic status”.

Moscow reciprocated by expelling four Austrian diplomats, saying Vienna’s action “causes serious damage to bilateral relations, which are already in crisis”.

Gerhard Mangott, professor of international relations at the University of Innsbruck, said the Austrian government has reversed course in the last year.

“In fact Austria very clearly broke with Moscow after the start of the war,” Mangott said. “Before, there was a very friendly policy.”

Dancing with Putin 

Austria’s links to Russia have repeatedly made headlines in the past, such as when a former foreign minister invited Putin to her wedding and danced with him in 2018.

Since the beginning of the war, Austrian companies have also come under scrutiny over their links to Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has denounced the continued activities of the Raiffeisen bank in Russia.

Austrian oil and gas giant OMV has said it will not invest further in Russia, adding it “will no longer be a core region for us”.

Austrian and Russian gas ties date back decades: In 1968, the Soviet Union signed a gas contract with Austria, making it the first western country to get gas from there.

Austrian gas industry experts insist Russian gas will continue to be crucial for the country, which before the war imported some 80 percent of its gas from Moscow.

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