Austria's Skipping Russian Expulsions a `Bad Joke' to Allies

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(Bloomberg) -- Austria is drawing criticism from parts of the European Union for saying it couldn’t expel Russian diplomats on account of its neutrality.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s government, which includes nationalists that cooperate with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s party, declined to join the tough international response to a nerve-agent attack on a former Russian spy in England. Rather, it said, Austria is a “builder of bridges between East and West” and wants to “keep channels open” to Moscow.

That position is “hardly compatible with EU membership” and there’s “a big difference between being part of the West and being a bridge between the West and the East,” former Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said Tuesday on Twitter.

Artis Pabriks, a former Latvian foreign minister who’s a member of the European Parliament, called Austria’s decision a “bad joke.” He asked: “Which other EU policies/decisions Kurz does not apply to Austria?”

Kurz, whose People’s Party is part of the same political family as the parties of Bildt and Pabriks, said Monday that Austria backs the EU’s decision to pull its ambassador to Russia. He and Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl cited Austria’s neutrality as a reason for the reluctance.

Austria adopted neutrality as a condition for ending its post-World War II occupation by the U.S., the Soviet Union, the U.K. and France in 1955. While it joined the EU in 1995, it’s not a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and hosts several United Nations agencies as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

United Russia

Austria, which has gotten most of its natural gas from Russia for 50 years, has a history of trying to moderate the EU’s approach to Moscow. Social Democrat Werner Faymann was one of the more skeptical EU leaders when initial sanctions were imposed on Russia in 2014 over the annexation of Crimea.

Kurz’s coalition partner, the Freedom Party, signed a “working agreement” with Putin’s United Russia party in Moscow in 2016, saying it would like to roll back the sanctions.

Johann Gudenus, Freedom’s parliamentary caucus leader, said Wednesday that the attack is being exploited by governments “that are interested in an escalation and want to entice other countries to join them.”

Roiling Slovakia

Neighboring Slovakia’s decision not to expel Russian diplomats is emerging as the first test of Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini’s week-old government.

The premier, whose predecessor Robert Fico was publicly opposed sanctions against Russia, was urged this week by President Andrej Kiska to “show solidarity with one of our most important partners,” a reference to the EU.

On Wednesday, Slovakia said it will recall its ambassador to Moscow for consultations for the first time in the country’s 25-year history. Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak said expulsions “can’t be ruled out” after all.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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