Austrian Ambassador to Russia Emil Brix: Specific rights have to be given to the regions in Ukraine
Austrian Ambassador to Russia Emil Brix has given an interview to Interfax foreign political desk chief Olga Golovanova on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of bilateral relations, in which he speaks about Austria‘s position on Ukraine in light of resolving the South Tyrol conflict, about the use of sanctions in international relations, which he considers unwise, about Austria‘s neutral status, as well as Austrian-Russian energy cooperation.Question: Mr. Ambassador, this year marks the 500th anniversary of Austrian-Russian relations, when Sigismund von Herberstein came to Moscow on the first mission as diplomatic representative of Emperor Maximilian I. What importance does Vienna attach to relations with Russia?
Anwser: Exactly 500 years ago my predecessor Sigismund von Herberstein arrived in Moscow and I somehow feel humbled by this anniversary. I visited also the place in the Kremlin where he met with the Russian Grand Duke. But I don‘t only feel humbled, I also feel some sort of responsibility that both of our countries have for our people and for Europe, because during these 500 years we have always had to make relevant decisions for our countries and also for Europe. And the visit of Herberstein was a good example, because he came here to try to negotiate a peace treaty with the Polish king and to find an ally against the Turkish sultan. As far as I know he was not very successful. This is what happens sometimes to diplomats. The quality of our diplomatic relations is of a long duration. I would say that the reason why Herberstein‘s visit was so important is also because he mainly said two things in his famous book "Notes on Russia". He said that first of all for a European Russia is an unknown country, the country that you have to discover and that may look strange and foreign to you. But at the same he said and wrote in his book that Russia is indispensable for Europe. And that‘s the future of our cooperation in this regard; the future of our people depends also on the relationship between Austria and Russia. And that is something I would say until nowadays to a certain extent is true. Both our countries know out of history how important it is to find diplomatic solutions, how to live in a common European security architecture. Therefore, ever since 1517 Austria has attached great importance to relations with Russia, and we continue to see Russia in the future as a key part of our common European home. This very history of 500 years proves that peace in Europe is possible only with, not against Russia. This is something Austria has learnt, and I think this is also something that Europe should know. We continue to promote dialog, we want to rebuild trust and understanding, and what we do not want is an East-West divide. I think countries like Austria and Russia have responsibility to make sure that this does not happen.
Q.: Many countries are trying to separate the East and the West. And last week head of the EU delegation to Russia Vygaudas Usackas said that Russia is overcoming economic recession. He also spoke for economic cooperation between Russia and the EU the way that both sides do not loose time. Do you agree with him? Do you think that is a high time to stop the war of sanctions?
A.: I would say it is high time to improve our economic relations. It is high time to use the potential that we have - both sides, the European Union and Russia – for being an important player on the world scene, as far as economic cooperation is concerned. We have to look for fields of common interests where we can work together. Regarding the sanctions, we know that sanctions are hurting, and they are hurting both sides. This cannot be denied. The lifting of sanctions, therefore, would be beneficial and welcome, but this is and will remain to be linked to certain well-known conditions. Regarding the voice of Austria in Brussels, I think it is heard with some attention and expectations especially because of the OSCE chairmanship that Austria has this year. Our, Austrian, point of view on sanctions is well-known in Moscow. It was presented by our president when he visited President Putin last year and our foreign minister was here only this January. I think it is balanced, it is adjusted to circumstances and developments, and it is also guided by strict adherence to agreed EU principles and policies. At the same time, we have always tried to emphasize our interest in good bilateral relations, disagreements on some issues notwithstanding. I think what we see at the moment is that there are improving bilateral relations with various countries on the European side, and I think this is a good sign also regarding these measures and counter-measures that we are experiencing.
Q.: Probably it would be rather hard for you as the ambassador of only one member state to answer the question but nevertheless I would ask you this question. Could you please name term and dates of easing or lifting sanctions? What would you say to this keeping in mind that some countries propose to impose new sanctions against Russia? Could new sanctions because of Russia‘s position on Syria and other regional conflicts be evaded?
A.: Many wise people have already said that sanctions are not a very intelligent instrument in international relations and that we must find ways to handle our relations in a more balanced way. Regarding the strengthening or reducing the sanctions, this really depends on the developments on the ground, it depends on the given political situation that we have. We well know that sanctions as we have them now are related to the developments in Ukraine. These sanctions really depend on positive progress regarding the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. There is no way around this. We believe that there is still a chance for full implementation, but there is hardly any progress. Regarding sanctions for other issues of world conflicts, it has always been the Austrian position never to think first of sanctions when we want to deal with our partners. As we see now there are no new sanctions at the moment by the European Union regarding developments in Syria. I think we have learnt also fr om the discussions of the last few years to look for maybe not more elegant but more adequate reactions. But let me say at the same time Austria is a country that is strongly based on the rule of law. The power of law is for us more important than the power of strength. I would like to always deal with our Russian colleagues with all due respect to the big character of Russia. It is wise when you look into history, into these 500 years of our history, to try to work towards the implementation of the rule of law, acceptance of all regulations that we have in the international law and to find lasting solutions by diplomatic means.
Q.: You have mentioned the Ukrainian crisis, and my next question is exactly about it. This year Austria chairs the OSCE. As we know, it Special Monitoring Mission plays a great role in Donbas events. What results of your chairmanship do you anticipate in the Ukrainian crisis settlement by the end of the year? Last week Italian President Sergio Matarella said he hoped to see progress in the Ukrainian settlement by the end of the year. Do you expect the same? And what do you think Kyiv and other sides of the conflict should do?
A.: I will always remember what Foreign Minister Lavrov once said. He said that diplomats are not paid for to be optimists. So we have to be quite realistic. I would hope to say by the end of the year we have substantial progress and we are working for that. As you known, the OSCE chairperson this year is a very young and very active Austrian foreign minister. He is rightfully ambitious to achieve something in this field of conflict resolution. At the same time with his priorities, that are Austrian priorities for the OSCE, we have to make sure that we have very practical things that we can achieve this year. That means that in the conflicts that we have at the moment, especially the Ukrainian conflict; we should concentrate now on the humanitarian crisis, on humanitarian issues, and what happens on the ground to the population on both sides of the line of conflict. At the same time, he said, what we need to do in Europe is to work against radicalization of people, especially of young people. Russia has this problem, Austria has this problem, and other European countries know these problems. Then he said that, our third priority is to try to rebuild trust in the European security architecture. And for this, we are working at the moment. If I may come back to the Ukrainian conflict, which is certainly our top priority, I think that we have already achieved small steps this year with the increase in the number of the Special Monitoring Mission, with the acceptance that there will be 24/7 possibility of observation, with the acceptance of both sides to work towards ceasefires, especially now around the Easter time. These may sound as small steps but they are important. We certainly hope that we can go forward in the implementation of the whole process of the Minsk Agreements. The problem, as I see it, is that there is a blame-game going on. The Russian side is blaming the Ukrainians; the Ukrainians are blaming the Russian side. Putting the blame on one side only would not be appropriate nor conduces to progress in the negotiations process. The Minsk Agreements are a quite complex set of provisions that are not always clear cut. And thus it offers some room for interpretation with the potential of misunderstandings or even abuses on both sides. This implies unfortunately that there is some scope for obstructing the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, even dragging out the process. Some people even say that the Minsk Agreements were very important to stop the fighting when it was at its peak. But their structure makes it now complicated to really implement them in a clear-cut way. I think the chronology of the provision of the agreements is of utmost importance. And if we do not follow the chronology, which was accepted, this carries the risk of unwrapping the whole package. We believe that for the time being there is no better alternative to these agreements. So we should refrain fr om experiments in this respect.
Q.: Do you think Kyiv cannot cope with radical elements in Ukraine that try to impose a blockade between Russia and Ukraine and that try to close offices of Russian banks in Ukraine?
A.: What Austria has said for quite some time already is that what we need for a solution is to create incentives for Russia and also certainly for the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine and for Ukraine to make positive steps. The Minsk Agreements are rather looking for the implementation and that then there will be benefits for all sides. If we can find a way to create incentives for implementation, then this may be helpful for a step-by-step implementation and also it is possible for a step-by-step reduction of the sanctions that we have at this very moment. Certainly, radical forces on both sides are not helpful. As we know there are partners in this dialog that are hard to control. We always hear in meetings with the Russian side that the West should put more pressure on Mr. Poroshenko to make progress in implementation. And we are always asking the Russian side to put more pressure on the separatist forces to make sure that they are willing to implement agreed steps. I think that both are true. This is the situation we are in, and this is a game where we are hindering the process because we are blaming the other side, but we are hopeful that positive moves are possible. This is a difficult process. The OSCE is on daily basis working on it. As you know, we have an Austrian ambassador, Martin Sajdik, doing the work in the Trilateral Contact Group, and what I hear fr om him is that it is often frustrating but he is still – and I‘m using this word not by chance – he is still optimistic.
Q.: How would comment on a statement of Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Alexander Turchynov, who said a few day ago that Ukrainian armed forces should go forward to Donbas. Foreign Minister Lavrov interpreted this statement as Kyiv‘s refusal to implement the Minsk Agreements?
A.: I would say we should not comment on individual statements by either side. There are many voices on both sides that indicate that we are in a very difficult situation. But what I know is that the government in Ukraine and the president are looking for solutions. I guess we can agree that also the Russian president and foreign minister are looking for solutions. It would not be helpful for me to comment on individual statements by political commentators in either country. I know that sometimes these comments have a follow-up in political decisions, and I think for instance that is it very unfortunate that the issue of the participation of a Russian singer in the Eurovision song context could not be resolved. This is a clear sign that even something which should not be a political issue it is very difficult not to do the blame-game between Russia and Ukraine. Our experience is that when we, Austrians, have had problems with one of our neighbors it took sometimes quite a long time to find a solution, and it is not always helpful to look to the other side to say that they are not committed to the process. We had for decades a problem with Italy regarding the former Austrian province of South Tyrol, which has been since 1918 an integral part of Italy. It took us fr om 1918 to 1992 – that‘s almost 75 years – to resolve that conflict. And now it really works. Now this province is a blossoming region with autonomy and possibilities to work on both sides, and now it is also a part of the European Union. Thus, sometimes it takes a long time, and I think that there is no need to speak about eastern Ukraine as a ‘frozen conflict‘.
Q.: Would you or would you not suggest that Ukraine look at the example of this situation in Austrian-Italian relations?
A.: I never recommend historic examples because each situation is different. But what I‘m saying is that we in Europe have had a lot of similar problems. And to almost all of them we found solutions. Some of them are not perfect, on some of them we are still working – just look at Cyprus for instance – we are still working for a solution there, and some of them are quite successful – look at Northern Ireland. So each case has to be treated duly. What is clear is that and what is also a part of the Minsk Agreements that there has to be decentralization, that specific rights have to be given to the regions in Ukraine.
Q.: That is what is said in the Minsk Agreements on a special status for Donbas. Do you think this process should be speeded up?
A.: Yes and no. It should be speeded up if there is a real chance that we get a sustainable solution, a solution that can be accepted by all partners. If it is not there, it‘s no use to put only pressure on the situation and maybe find an interim solution. I think we should give us enough time and have enough time to find a solution that has a lasting impact on the problem there. Behind that is a bigger problem of future relations between Russia and Ukraine. You know better than I how close these two nations have always been in history. Many families have relations on both sides, and there has developed a lack of trust now which will take, I am afraid, a lot of time to be overcome again. This is even a bigger problem that we, Europeans, have to find a solution for. I think we can find this when we discuss our European home, and this includes discussions about the security architecture in Europe, discussions about the economic area – you know this under the heading fr om Lisbon to Vladivostok - these sort of issues we will have to discuss in coming years, which may be even more important but certainly even more difficult than the given conflicts that we have now in Europe.
Q.: And now about another conflict, now in Syria. There were several important meetings in Vienna of the International Syria Support Group. Yesterday Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Bogdanov said that it is a high time to convene such a meeting. Are you aware of preparations for such a meeting in the Austrian capital? Would you propose to host this meeting in Vienna?
A.: The decision where the meetings take place is a decision for the players involved. Vienna and Austria have always offered their services for this. You know this fr om the Iran negotiations that were successfully concluded in Vienna, but also from other international meetings. So, the neutrality of Austria is a good precondition for meeting and discussing things. Regarding the meeting you mentioned, I have no information that there is already a decision wh ere it should take place.
Q.: Here we come to my question about neutrality of Austria, I mean military neutrality. Are you going to maintain this status? Several weeks ago your Swedish colleague said that Sweden does not plan to change its status but nevertheless it sees Russia as a threat to its security. They are going to restore general army conscription and military infrastructure in the North. What plans does Austria have in the defense area, if there are any?
A.: Austria is a neutral country, and the concept of neutrality remains a cornerstone of our security thinking and it is according to our constitutional law also, and it is fully compatible with our membership in the European Union and our partnership with NATO. We have no intention to join NATO. I would also like to say that the question of general conscription – we have already had that discussion. Four year ago we had a referendum in Austria, and the majority of the Austrian population spoke in favor of retaining general conscription, which provides for us not only our military basis but also civilian service is possible, and a lot of young people go into civilian service, which is good for society. This decision has already been taken. We have good experience with this sort of neutrality and the Austrian people by a large majority support the idea. But what‘s behind that? Behind that is not the idea that a country like Austria or any other country in Europe can abstain from what is going on, can abstain from the structure of Europe and the world order, but it means that we have some very clear principles. Our top principle is that the power of law should always prevail over the law of power. Thus we attach the utmost importance to the rules and principles agreed on the international and regional levels. And we fully support the United Nations, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and to accept these rules, is part of our everyday thinking. The Austrian population really believes that the rule of law is something that can provide the international community with the rules necessary for good cooperation. By the way, this also includes also our interest in disarmament and arms control. Austria at the moment - and I know the Russian Federation is so far not convinced to follow us – proposes together with partners such as South Africa and Brazil to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons. We know it will take some time but at the moment at the United Nations there are already negotiations going on in this field. So, these elements are the basis of Austrian neutrality. But we know at the same time that neutrality is only good for the international community if there is a service, if it provides some sort of services for the international community. And our services, as we saw this in history, and as we see this now, maybe now even more than when we were a big empire, but now we say that we should provide chances for mediation and we should provide a space wh ere there is less ideological talking, a place wh ere it is possible to exchange our national interests in a civilized way. And we will continue this foreign policy agenda, not only because the population supports it, but also because our political leadership believes in it.
Q.: Are going to raise these issues during your chairmanship in the OSCE, I mean disarmament and arms control in Europe?
A.: Yes. Conventional arms reduction and arms control in Europe has always been on the table also in the OSCE context and it is a part of ongoing discussions that we very much support. I think the OSCE is one of the forums wh ere such things can be discussed because you have big players like the United States and Russia onboard. The OSCE is sometimes a difficult instrument for decision-making because it demands a consensus of all the partners involved. The OSCE is also the right place wh ere discussions about changes to the new European security architecture might be discussed. I think the OSCE is a good organization to work on this. These issues are quite complicated, and because you said that in Sweden there are discussions whether Russia is a threat to the security of Sweden. The Austrian context – we had our experience with threats. We know that there are countries that are easy to deal with and there are countries that are less easy to deal with, but I could not say that Austrians feel Russia to be a threat to my country.
Q.: Some European countries view Russia as a threat in the energy sphere. They suspect Russia of using energy as a ‘weapon‘ of manipulation. Is Austria capable of influencing the position of other countries that oppose the Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 projects, for example Poland? Are you going to try to influence these countries?
A.: Energy is not innocent and can be an economic weapon to exert power, and it is getting more and more important. From an Austrian perspective energy policy should be an instrument of helping our relations and not of hindering our relations. Regarding our energy policy relations with Russia, we can only say that we have very good experience. For almost 50 years Russia has served as a reliable source of gas to Austria. At this moment, as you know, OMV and Gazprom are intensifying cooperation in a number of very concrete projects. For us Nord Stream 2 is an economic projects promoted by key international energy companies which will be pursued in accordance with the relevant legal framework, and this framework comprises energy relations between the European Union and Russia. In general terms it is to be welcomed that Gazprom remains responsive to the development of the energy policy of the Europe Union, which aims to enhance competition, ensuring supply security and lowering cost for the benefit of consumers across Europe. I think these are the areas that we have to look at. If we can convince partners who are critical about this project by letting them know that these objectives, which are a part of the energy policy of the European Union can be strengthened by projects like Nord Stream 2, then we will be successful. As far as I know, Gazprom and also the Russian minister of energy are in good contacts with various Central and Eastern European countries regarding finding ways of how to get a positive response to this pipeline project. What I hear, and it is mainly from media actually, is that in some central European countries there are positive developments regarding this project. Austria is always ready to talk with critical EU member countries on these issues. I cannot tell you what the outcome of this will be, but I would say again that we have no reason to be critical about such sort of cooperation between Russia and Austria, because next year it will be 50 years that we started to cooperate. Austria was the first European country on the western side of the Iron Curtain that started this cooperation. And Russia has always been a reliable supplier. What we don‘t want – and I‘m sure that Russia also doesn‘t want this – is that other countries – and I‘m here mentioning Ukraine – will have negative economic effects and in their possibility to participate in energy policy issues, because of projects like Nord Stream 2. We have to rely that all partners are aware of this situation, but as far as I know there are good discussions going on.
Q.: Previously, the German foreign minister said that Germany is in favor of Nord Stream 2 but at the same time he said that energy is what preserves Ukraine as a transit state. How would you comment on this?
A.: I think this is understandable, because one of the criticisms of Nord Stream 2 has been that this is a project for political reasons to harm Ukraine. If we find ways to make sure that this is not true then it will be easier to implement Nord Stream 2. And this is what the German Foreign Minister said and that is very close to the Austrian position.
Q.: European countries, just as countries in other regions, are talking about Russia‘s interference with electoral processes. Does Austria have similar fear regarding Russia? Is Austria involved in some kind of intelligence exchange with other European countries over this issue?
A.: We all know that cybersecurity has come to be one of the most serious challenges that we have. It‘s a global problem. I think that all countries are in this respect potential actors and potential victims at the same time. I think that as in other areas the threat to cybersecurity can be better fought in cooperation with Russia, than in confrontation with it. During the OSCE chairmanship we have special events discussing cooperation in the field of cybersecurity. This already, I think, tells you a story regarding the fear of Russia in the cybersecurity field as far as Austria in concerned. As to our electoral processes I haven‘t heard any media saying that Russia was interfering in cyberspace, and as far as the general situation in Europe is concerned, I would say there is a point. Because the fear that is expressed by criticizing Russia is also the fear that Russia may not be interested in a strong and united Europe. This is why European countries are concerned. As I see it, Russia should be interested in a strong and united Europe, so rationally it makes little sense to think that Russia has an interest in interfering in electoral processes. At the same time in the European Union we go through a political process that is quite difficult, we‘ve got an increase of radical parties, and this less stable situation in Europe makes European countries more vulnerable to influence by outside forces. Cyberspace has become an area for confrontation, and sometimes it is really hard to control and to know what is really going on. And uncertainty creates distrust.
Q.: This year is the year of Russia-Austrian tourism. What remarkable events in both countries could you name? Do you think that such a year can promote the growth in the number of mutual tourist trips? And is Austria going to ease visa requirement for Russian tourists?
A.: The aim of the Austrian-Russian year of tourism is really to help our tourism sector in both countries to develop. This is the main aim I would say – to help tourism infrastructure, to help the tourism industry by an exchange of experience, by exchange of information. I remember when President Putin said some time ago talking about the tourism potential of the Caucasus region, he said, "look at Tyrol, which is one of the most developed tourist regions, and we in the Caucasus can learn from Tyrol." Since that I am all the more convinced that there is an interest in this sort of relations. That is why during this year of tourism, especially the tourism infrastructure and tourism business are trying to learn from each other. It is one of the most important objectives to create lasting partnerships; in particular a regional partnership is being prepared at this moment between the republic of Karachayevo-Cherkessia and the federal province of Tyrol. Hopefully it will be signed soon. During the tourism year, we invite Russian partners to Austrian tourist fares, for instance a winter tourism fair that we have in Tyrol in April, and a Russian delegation will go there. So, exchanges are important. Secondly, we have the aim to make our countries better known to potential tourists from the other country. This is an excellent chance for Russia to promote not only St. Petersburg, Moscow and possibly Yekaterinburg but also other parts of this vast territory of Russia. There is so much to develop and so much to discover. I think that Austrian tourists like to discover new things. There is a real potential for Russia in doing this. But I would also say that for Russian tourists going to Austria there is potential. They say Austria is so well-known as a destination of tourism in winter and also in summer. But still there is so much individuality in my country, a small country of less than nine million people. There is so much that you can only find if you go there and talk to people, have this direct contact, and individualize your trip to Austria.
Q.: A few year ago the Austrian embassy to Russia issued visas for the period of stay in the country. Has the situation changed? Is it now possible to get a multi-entry visa at the Austrian embassy to Russia? Is Austria strict regarding requests for long-term multi-entry visas?
A.: We are strict but transparent in our policy. Normally, we always issue multiple entry visas, for the period of stay depending on the purpose of the trip. Tourist visas can only be issued for the period of stay that has been booked. When it comes to visas for business purposes after the second or third time, we are open for long term multiple visas starting with a duration of one year. As far as I understand these possibilities that we have go up to five years of multiple visa to the Schengen area. As I said, we have to apply the same rules as other Schengen countries do. Although I know there are different interpretations in individual member countries of the Schengen area. The countries that are more prone to tourism, more open to tourism are also more flexible in giving multiple long term visas, if the Schengen regime allows. In Austria we try to be as much open as possible.
Q.: So it depends?
A.: It certainly depends. The problem that we have everywhere, in Russia, in Europe and other countries, is that we have to deal with security issues. Now the ministries of the interior and security institutions have hard work to do, really, to make sure that we stay secure within our borders. This is a difficult issue. I think that between Russia and Europe we should work to alleviate this visa regime. Maybe it is too early but sooner or later we should again have discussions about visa liberalization between Russia and the European Union. To achieve this, we have to make progress also in other fields of our cooperation. This is the precondition for this. I always thought – I‘m not sure how much this finds open doors in Russia - but I always thought that if there is a unilateral step by the Russian side regarding entry for European citizens, this might be a gesture that opens also the minds and doors on the European side. But maybe I‘m too optimistic that the Russian side can do this.
Q.: Previously, it was know that there are a lot of Chechens in Austria. What is the situation now? Is this a topic for discussion between Russia and Austria?
A.: We have quite a substantial number of Chechens living in Austria. I think that Belgium and Austria have the largest number of Chechens. Certainly, the integration of Chechens in Austria as the integration of other migrants coming- is not easy. We are discussing migration issues also with Russian institutions. And there are also Chechens returning to Russia. As far as I know, the number has increased in the last two or three years. For migrants going back to the Chechen Republic, until end of last year, there was a special Austrian program supporting their re-integration in Russia. We used to work with an NGO from Chechnya and we supported it financially. We gave financial support for the re-integration of Chechens returning to Russia. Issues like this, issues of security, are important and that is one of the reasons why our Minister of the Interior will be on a visit to Russia at the end of May to discuss these issues at several official meetings.
Q.: And what will they discuss?
A.: So far, I have no information about the topics that will be discussed, but there are so many issues on the table for the ministers of the interior to discuss that there will hardly be enough time to discuss all of them. We are committed to substantial dialogues on a political level wh ere there are common interests; you may call this a policy of ‘re-engaging with Russia‘. In the coming months also our Minister of Justice and our Minister of Agriculture and Environment will come to Russia for official meetings.