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It was a year of nail-biter elections for Western Europe. Each vote in 2017 sparked concerns that pro-Russian, far-right forces might come to power. The danger passed in Holland, France, and then Germany. But just when it seemed Europe could finally relax, Austria fell into the trap. Now, its government includes members of the pro-Russian, far-right Freedom Party of Austria.
Observers fear that the Freedom Party will radicalize its new coalition with the center-right Austrian People’s Party. They worry that the Austrian government will close the country’s borders, fraternize with Russia, and drag the political system in the illiberal direction taken by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. They point to a recent visit to Crimea by several Freedom Party politicians as evidence of these fears coming true.
However, both the People’s Party and the Freedom Party have since distanced themselves from these politicians. And after the election, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz unequivocally stated that his government “will be pro-European or it will not exist.” Furthermore, he and Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache have reaffirmed their allegiance to the idea of a united Europe and their intention to actively participate in the EU, even while reforming it.
Nonetheless, the new coalition may bring benefits for Russia’s ties with the EU. For that to happen, however, Moscow must recognize the opportunity, but set reasonable expectations.
Despite widespread concerns, Austria’s tilt to the right means less of a sharp turn in the country’s foreign policy than many expect. There are several reasons for this. First, Austrians remember well how the EU imposed sanctions against their country the last time the People’s Party and the Freedom Party formed a coalition in 2000. Kurz does not intend to repeat that mistake.
Second, the two parties’ foreign policy platforms actually have much in common. Austria’s new government is united in its ambition to stop all illegal immigration; limit the number of refugees it accepts; and “filter” them in specialized camps, preferably outside the EU. Both parties also support a zero-tolerance policy for political Islam, viewing it as a threat to the fundamental values of Austrian society.
The coalition believes the EU should “return to its roots.” It wants the bloc to become more compact and to focus on its key economic and security functions. The new government insists on the revival of the principle of subsidiarity and unconditional protection of member states’ sovereignty in all matters outside the EU’s jurisdiction. Kurz’s coalition also plans to ensure the security of Austria’s borders. To that end, it intends to increase financing for the armed forces and maintain the conscription system.
On Russia, Kurz favors gradually relaxing sanctions in return for progress implementing the Minsk agreements. He also hopes for “more understanding, more dialogue, more flexibility” with the country. This “moderate” position is frequently contrasted with the policy of Germany’s Angela Merkel. As minister of foreign affairs, Kurz constantly criticized Merkel’s open border policy, and he played an important role in closing the Balkan route to Europe for migrants. This suggests that the new Austrian chancellor is ready to challenge the status quo.
However, we should not overestimate the Austrian government’s willingness and ability to go against its partners in the EU. Austria is a small country in a large association. To promote its own agenda, it must join a coalition. That means Kurz’s government will most likely opt to abide by EU policy, handing off responsibility for decisionmaking to larger players. It will only make its voice heard on issues like migration, when the EU’s decisions can have a major impact on the domestic situation in Austria.
That doesn’t mean Austria will take a back seat. In fact, this approach allows Vienna to retain some room for taking the initiative, getting involved in debates where its voice can be heard in the framework of Europe-wide discussion. And, in the second half of 2018, Austria will chair the Council of the European Union, meaning Kurz and his team will have a new venue for promoting their vision for Europe. But the government is unlikely to rock the boat just for the sake of it.
Of greater concern is the Freedom Party, which is often referred to as “Russia’s friends.” In December 2016, the Freedom Party even signed a five-year cooperation agreement with Russia’s ruling United Russia party. This amicable attitude toward Moscow manifests itself in the Freedom Party’s unambiguous desire to cancel sanctions on Russia.
However, these showy foreign policy slogans seem aimed more at contrasting the Freedom Party with other political forces. In reality, Freedom Party politicians are mostly focusing on reforming domestic policy: even before the elections, party chairman Heinz-Christian Strache said that getting the seat of interior minister was a non-negotiable prerequisite for any coalition talks.
The main objective of the Freedom Party is to implement its campaign promises on national security and domestic reforms. True, Strache did say that the coalition would like the Russia sanctions to be gradually lifted. However, if Austria is unable to convince its European partners to do so, it will strictly adhere to decisions made by the majority at the EU level—that is, after all, what democracy means.
Still, Russia should see two significant benefits from the new government. First, the Austrian government insists that dialogue with Russia is necessary, and it is convinced that sanctions should be lifted, conditional on Minsk implementation. The Kurz coalition could thus serve as an intermediary in normalizing Russia-EU relations: his ministers know how to listen to the Russian side and are prepared to relay the Kremlin’s position to their European allies without bias. Second, the mere presence of a party sympathetic to Russia at the institutional level in a European country—even as a junior coalition partner—gives Moscow an additional symbolic resource.
What’s more, Austria’s official neutrality—which the new government highly values—could prove to be a positive. Despite belonging to the EU and the Eurozone, Austria is not a member of NATO. It sees itself as a venue for talks on a wide range of subjects, from Iran’s nuclear program to the civil war in Syria.
As relations between the West and Russia become increasingly colored by a “bloc mentality,” Austria can serve as a “transit zone” where the sides freely conduct discussions. The Russian government should take advantage of this opportunity.
At the same time, Russia should branch out from its habitual format of bilateral discussions with select EU countries that the Kremlin views as influential. Instead, it should also build dialogue with the EU as an institution. The complexity of the Ukraine conflict and the mutual grievances between Europe and Russia should compel both sides to seek complex solutions through multilateral and multilevel talks. Few places can be better for this than Vienna, the capital of the Council of the European Union chair, under the Kurz coalition.
Increased mutual understanding between the Austrian coalition and Russia presents an opportunity to reduce tensions in Russia’s relations with the EU. However, Moscow must neither miss this opportunity nor overestimate it by expecting too much from Vienna.
This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
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