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Karin Kneissl steht im Dirndl in einer Pferdekutsche und winkt

APA/ROLAND SCHLAGER

Guess who’s coming to my wedding?

There are many ways to spoil a wedding - from tasteless speeches to family feuds - but it is not very often that the big day gets overshadowed by international politics. Unless, of course, you decide to invite the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

By John Cummins

The wedding of Austria’s Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl on Saturday has prompted the kind of media attention usually reserved for royals or celebrities. In this instance, though, it is not the location or the cost that has set tongues wagging but rather the guest list, or, at least, one very conspicuous guest, the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Kneissl issued the invitation to Putin in defiance of international protocol, and despite having only met the Russian president on one occasion, when he visited Austria last June.

While she might have little or no connection to Putin, the party that chose her to head the Foreign Ministry, Austria’s junior coalition partner, the right-wing Freedom Party, most certainly does. The Freedom Party has close ties to the ruling party in Russia, and has repeatedly called for the lifting of European Union sanctions, imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

For Putin, of course, the visit offers something of a PR coup.

„He (Putin) can demonstrate that he is not politically or diplomatically isolated,“ says Russian expert Dr Gerhard Mangott, Professor of International Relations at the University of Innsbruck, „as some states in the European Union and the United States usually like to claim.“

The Austrian government insists that the visit is „completely private“ but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is not, at least to some extent, politically motivated.

Russia’s Trojan horse

With tensions running high between many European countries and Russia, not least the United Kingdom, which accuses Moscow of being behind the poisoning of the former Russian agent Sergei Skripal in March, Putin’s visit is likely to further damage Austria’s standing within the European Union, at a time when the country is holding the bloc’s rotating presidency.

Austria refused to follow the lead of numerous EU states and expel Russian diplomats in the wake of the Skripal affair and has been conspicuous in its conciliatory tone towards Russia both before and since, despite Moscow’s continued support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its central role in the Ukraine conflict and allegations of Russian meddling in European elections.

„Some see Austria as a Trojan horse of the Russians in the European Union,“ says Mangott. „It is very negative for Austria’s credibility and, in fact, it is undermining the course of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who is very keen to bring the European Union institutions and Russia closer together.“

Damage to Austria’s reputation

It is not only Austria’s standing within the EU that has taken a hit but also its reputation abroad. The head of the Ukrainian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Hanna Hopko, says Austria’s neutrality has been compromised and the country can no longer be considered a mediator in Ukraine.

Michel Reimon, a member of the European Parliament for the Greens, has gone further and called for Kneissl’s resignation, describing Putin as the EU’s „most aggressive foreign policy opponent.“

Such is the mistrust with which Putin is viewed in the European Union, that Austria cannot escape the suspicion that it is doing the Russian president’s bidding. A Trojan horse it might not be, but the Austrian government’s actions appear to be driven by a dangerous combination of political expediency and naivety.

As Homer warned in the Iliad, weddings, politics and breaches of trust can sometimes be a heady mix. With disastrous consequences for all involved.

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