Austria’s neutrality under pressure as the war in Ukraine goes on

The Ukraine war has begun to put increasing pressure on Austria to do away with its decade-old neutrality.

A meeting of the Vienna-based Organisation for Security and Economic Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), scheduled for next week, has turned controversial with pressure mounting on host Austria from some members to withdraw the invitation to Russia for invading Ukraine.

Significantly, the two-day meeting of OSCE parliamentarians, scheduled for February 23 and 24, coincides with the first anniversary of the Russian invasion in Ukraine.

Austria is among the few European countries that has still maintained military neutrality and diplomatic relations with Russia.

The 57-member OSCE had begun in 1975 as the Conference of Security and Cooperation in Europe during the Cold War as a forum for dialogue between the East and the West.

It became the OSCE after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 but continued to encourage Russian participation in issues related to arms control, promotion of human rights, free and fair elections and press freedom.

Austria is the headquarters of a number of high-profile organizations, like the International Agency for Atomic Energy (IAEA) and the Organization of Petroleum and Economic Cooperation (OPEC) apart from the OSCE.

Reports said Russia is likely to send a delegation to the OSCE’s parliamentary assembly of which 15 Russian lawmakers are under European Union sanctions.

Among them are Deputy Duma Chairman Pyotr Tolstoy and fellow parliament member Leonid Slutsky.

Anti-Russia stance

But 81 OSCE delegates from 20 countries including France, Canada, Britain, Poland and Ukraine have called upon the Austrian government to stop the participation of the sanctioned Russians.

“It is important to remember that Russian parliamentarians are an integral part of the power system and complicit in the crimes Russia commits every day in Ukraine,” they said in their letter.

“They have no place in an institution tasked with promoting sincere dialogue and opposition to the war,” the letter added.

The US delegates were not part of the letter demanding the exclusion of the Russian parliamentarians but made it clear that it was up to the Austrian government to determine whether they are going to grant them visas or not.

Austrian position

Although Austria has not commented on the letter, it has argued that it was important to keep the channel of communication with Moscow open despite the “brutal Russian attack against Ukraine.”

It has also maintained that as the host of the OSCE, Vienna was legally obliged to grant visas to representatives of participating nations who want to take part in meetings that were being held in Austria.

Austria became a European Union member in 1995 and has sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the war began but no weapons.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer was the first EU member to travel to Moscow to hold a face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to bring an early end to the war.

However, unlike Finland and Sweden which gave up their neutrality and decided to join NATO as a reaction to the Russian invasion, Austria has maintained its neutrality, although this has not stopped it from partnering with NATO in various capacities and from integrating itself with the European Union’s security framework.

Free Rider?

Some observers have described Austria as a free rider for taking advantage of the NATO security umbrella while remaining outside the military alliance.

Vienna has also maintained strong economic ties with Moscow and was one of the first countries in Europe to get into an agreement with Russia on the supply of gas.

Its dependence on Russian gas, which was about 80 percent, has come down to 20 percent since the war in Ukraine began. Now most of its demand is met by gas from Norway.

After World War II, the conflict’s victors split Austria under zones of occupation. In 1955, the US, UK, France, and the USSR signed the Austrian State Treaty that forced Austria to declare permanent neutrality.

It existed as a buffer zone between the West and the East.

Now, 80 percent of Austrians also support staying out of the Western alliance while the spirit of neutrality remains popular among Austrian politicians across the spectrum.

‘Not Up For Debate’

Chancellor Nehammer, a conservative politician, tweeted recently that Austrian neutrality is “not up for debate” and the leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPO), Pamela Rendi-Wagner has also maintained that Vienna’s neutrality was “non-negotiable.”

The same position was aired by the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) and the pacifist Green Party.

Since the 1950s, neutrality has long been tied to Austria’s freedom.

But some experts feel the popularity of neutrality in Austria is much more based on myth and legend than informed opinion.

Neutrality has enabled Austria to integrate into the West’s economic architecture while also reaping the benefits of trade with Russia.
Most Austrians associate neutrality with economic prosperity and security, both of which Austria enjoyed in abundance over the past six to seven decades.

Beyond economics and energy, neutrality in the Cold War and post-Cold War periods has also elevated Austria’s role on the international stage as “a venue for rapprochement between the East and West.”

Buffer role

Austrians believe their country’s positioning itself as a diplomatic bridge and buffer between the East and West has also helped well for national defence.

Politicians also argue that since neutral states do not represent a threat to the great powers, this has strengthened the country’s security.

However, the way Europe is getting polarised in the wake of the Ukraine war, Austria may find it extremely difficult to maintain its neutrality for long.