VIENNA (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Austria on his first trip west since his re-election to the Kremlin and was rejected when he called for the lifting of EU sanctions.
Austria, where a coalition of conservatives and the pro-Putin far right is in power, has a history of neutrality and relatively warm ties to Moscow.
He was criticized by his allies for being among the minority of EU member states that did not expel any Russian diplomat for the poisoning of former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal.
Putin, re-elected last March for a fourth general term in office, took advantage of his visit to call for the lifting of EU sanctions, imposed as punishment for the Russian annexation of Crimea and his support for separatists in the east of Ukraine.
"These actions are harmful to everyone, both those who initiate them and those against whom they are directed," Putin said at a press conference.
"Therefore, I think everyone has an interest in canceling them," he added at the ornate imperial palace in downtown Vienna, where he met with Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen.
But Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose conservatives control EU policy, repeated that Vienna would not break ranks with the rest of the bloc, which says that the situation in eastern Ukraine must improve before sanctions can be lifted .
"We hope that through dialogue more intense will be progress in the relations between the EU and Russia, "Kurz told reporters.
"In particular, we hope there is progress in eastern Ukraine to … lift the sanctions step by step."
Putin's visit is part of the celebrations that marked 50 years since the energy companies OMV and Gazprom signed a gas supply agreement – They signed a new agreement on Tuesday extending their agreement until 2040.
Your trip to Austria is a rare and symbolic foray into the West for a man often at odds with Western governments over issues such as Syria and Ukraine. His last bilateral trip to Western Europe went to Finland last July.
Austria, which assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union in July, says it wants to act as a "bridge builder" between East and West.
Has forged friendly ties with nationalist leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Kurz's coalition government includes the extreme right-wing Freedom Party (FPO), whose boss called over the weekend to end EU sanctions on Russia.
Information of Francois Murphy and Darya Korsunskaya; Additional reports by Vladimir Soldatkin and Tom Balmforth in Moscow and Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich in Vienna; Edition by Richard Balmforth