ARCHIVE – In this archive photo of June 24, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a press conference after his meeting with Austrian President Heinz Fischer at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria. (RIA-Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service / Associated Press)
by Associated Press June 4 at 8:48 a.m.
BERLIN – Russian President Vladimir Putin will travel to Austria on Tuesday on his first trip abroad since he swore a fourth term in office last month. The visit, which marks the 50th anniversary of the start of deliveries of Soviet gas to Austria, takes it to one of the European countries most favorable to Russia at a time when relations between the European Union and Russia are at a low point. It is his sixth official visit to Vienna.
Austria, unlike many other countries in the 28-nation EU, did not expel Russian diplomats for the poisoning in Britain earlier this year of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in March pointed to Vienna's "traditional good contacts" with Russia and said his government would use them to pressure Moscow to help clear up the attack by nerve agents. He said Vienna was "of the opinion that it is important to maintain channels of dialogue".
This reflects the generalized thinking in Austria, which dates back much before the current Kurz center-right government. Putin's last visit, in mid-2014, was one of his first in the West after Ukraine's annexation of Crimea by Russia.
Traditionally neutral Austria, which houses UN agencies, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, is not a member of NATO. Russian Ambbadador Dmitry Lyubinsky recently told the Austrian Press Agency that Russia appreciates "Austria's responsible position on issues on the international agenda."
Putin will meet liberal president Alexander Van der Bellen and Kurz, a 31-year-old conservative who became chancellor in December at the head of a coalition with the right-wing Freedom Party . The party leader, Deputy Foreign Minister Heinz-Christian Strache, says he will also meet with Putin.
The anti-migration and traditionally Eurosceptic Freedom Party has always had a positive view of the Russian leader, with Strache and other leaders traveling to Moscow in December 2016 to sign a cooperation agreement with the main Kremlin party, Russia United
Austria was the first Western European country to sign a gas delivery agreement with the Soviet Union on June 1, 1968 and Putin's. Visit this week coincides with that anniversary.
Today, gas and oil account for four fifths of Russian exports to Austria, while Austrian exports to Russia include machinery and pharmaceuticals. Putin's last visit to Austria, in 2014, focused on the signing of an agreement between the Austrian energy company OMV and Russia's Gazprom to build the Austrian section of the South Stream pipeline, a project that was later ruled out.
OMV is now among European companies involved in the planned Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would double the amount of gas that Russia can send directly to Germany, bordering transit countries such as Ukraine, a project opposed by the United States and other members of the EU.
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In an interview with the Sunday edition of the Oesterreich newspaper, Strache said that "a rethinking by the EU would be desirable, because the sanctions all damaged our Austrian economy." He added that it was time to end "tedious sanctions and normalize political and economic relations with Russia."
Aust Russia will badume the rotating presidency of the EU for six months in July, but there is little hope that sanctions will be lifted soon, since a peace plan for Ukraine is still far from being fully implemented.
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