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05/12/2016

Austria attempts to bridge gap between Brussels and Moscow

Global Europe

Austria attempts to bridge gap between Brussels and Moscow

President Heinz Fischer (L) and President Vladimir Putin

[Peter Lechner/HBF]

A warming of relations between Brussels and Moscow could be on the cards, as President Vladimir Putin suggested that there could be room for cooperation on the refugee crisis, during a state visit by the Austrian president. EurActiv Germany reports.

Heinz Fischer’s visit to the Russian capital will be his last in office before the presidential elections take place later this month and it took place against a backdrop of continuing tensions between the EU and Moscow, illustrated by the ongoing sanctions.

Austria’s all-star delegation, consisting of its president, four members of the government and the president of the Chamber of Commerce, was met by the entire Russian leadership, demonstrating the importance of the visit to both sides.

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In a joint press release, Putin spoke about halting the refugee influx from the Middle East into Europe, instead emphasising the need to provide people with opportunities in their own regions. For this to be possible, more international cooperation on the Syrian Civil War and Islamic terrorism is necessary.

France and Italy are among the voices coming from within the EU to ease the sanctions against Russia. But, given the ongoing unrest in Ukraine and Crimea, Brussels is unlikely to change its stance anytime soon.

It is not just economic considerations that shape Vienna-Moscow relations, even though some 1,200 Austrian companies have ties to Russia. The former USSR, along with the United States, the United Kingdom and France were co-signatories to the State Treaty of 1955, which reestablished Austria as an independent sovereign state. A close relationship has survived between Moscow and the Austrian capital, even after the fall of the Soviet Union.

However, Russian state media reported that President Fischer allegedly told Chairman of the State Duma Sergey Narshkin that: “It is important that we find a way to lift and overcome these sanctions.”

The president’s office moved quickly to contextualise the quote and Fischer himself later stated in his meeting with Putin that, “Austria remains loyal to the EU-sanctions.” Fischer’s office also explained that lifting the sanctions could only be possible through close cooperation between the entire EU and only if significant progress was made in the Minsk peace process.

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Austria’s supposed role as a bridge-builder with Europe and an ice-breaker with Russia was highlighted in the words of Ambassador Emil Brix: “The idea is to develop a dialogue with Russia. Europe and Russia can only act together, from terrorism to the economic crisis that our continent is living through currently.”

The extent to which Russia businesses and citizens are feeling the pinch of the sanctions was evident when Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev acknowledged that EU-Russia relations are far from perfect and that they benefit neither the Russian nor the Austrian economies. But Russia will have to be willing to compromise on Ukraine if any further thawing of the still frosty ties with the EU is to occur.