Russian President Vladimir Putin danced arm in arm with Austria’s Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl at her wedding on Saturday, after receiving an invitation that opposition critics said undermined the West’s stance against Moscow.
Putin arrived in a car carrying a bouquet of flowers and accompanied, local media said, by a troupe of Cossack singers booked to serenade the newlyweds – on a stopover on his way to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel outside Berlin.
Photographs showed Kneissl, 53, smiling in a long white and cream “dirndl” dress and talking to Putin as they danced in a vineyard in southern Styria province, the venue of her wedding to entrepreneur Wolfgang Meilinger.
One picture widely commented on Twitter showed Kneissl kneeling in front of Putin, in what looked like a formal salute before the dance.
So ein Glück für Karin Kneissl, dass alle Medien nur das Foto mit dem tanzenden Putin verbreitet haben. Und nicht jenes, wo sie vor ihm niederkniet. Damit verkauft sie den letzten Rest einer neutralen Diplomatie! pic.twitter.com/bMxtIuVQdu
— Eugen Freund (@EugenAFreund) August 19, 2018
The invitation surprised many in Vienna and Moscow, particularly at a time when the European Union is at odds with Russia over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and other issues.
There have been no reports that Kneissl – a polyglot Middle East expert without political affiliation – has a particularly close friendship with Putin. But she was appointed to her job by the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) which has links with Putin’s party.
FPÖ leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, who joined Austria’s governing coalition last year, praised her as a “bridge builder” as he congratulated the couple and wished them “all the luck in the world and eternal love!”
The international coverage of the visit would bring priceless publicity, he added. “A better advertisement for Austria, its wonderful nature, dreamlike landscape and real life hospitality cannot exist!”
The FPÖ – the junior partner to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party – supports Russia’s claim of sovereignty over Crimea and advocates the easing of economic sanctions levied against Moscow over its role in the Ukrainian crisis.
Jörg Leichtfried from the opposition Social Democrats tweeted that Austria’s current presidency of the Council of the European Union put it in an especially delicate spot given tensions between Putin and the West.
“All the more symbolic and harmful to court the Russian president in this manner,” he said.
Austria’s governing coalition – led by the conservatives of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who also attended the wedding – has presented itself as a bridge builder with Moscow.
It says it shares the EU’s foreign policy stance, but did not follow other members of the bloc in expelling Russian diplomats after Britain accused Russia of involvement in the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England – a charge Moscow denies.
Putin travelled to Germany later on Saturday to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel for talks about Syria, Ukraine and energy at the government’s Meseberg palace outside Berlin.