28 Feb 2018

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz: Long-term peace in Europe will only be possible with Russia and not against

Ahead of his visit to Moscow newly-elected Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has given an interview to Olga Golovanova for Interfax. In the interview he speaks about his expectations from the upcoming meeting with the Russian president, his vision of solving the energy-security problem in Europe, the migration crisis, and explains conditions under which some sanctions could be lifted from Russia.

Question: Mr. Kurz, you are visiting Russia for the first time in your new capacity. What is Russia‘s role in Austria‘s foreign policy priorities? What are your expectations from the upcoming meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin? Since 2018 has been declared the Russian-Austrian cross year of music, let me use a musical metaphor: what is needed for a Viennese waltz between partners like our two countries to be a success?

Answer: We are very worried about the high level of tensions between the East and the West. As a neutral country, Austria has always been a bridge-builder between the East and the West and a place for dialogue, as the Iran and Syria talks have shown. Austria will therefore strive to foster open and constructive dialogue as a basis to find common solutions to the challenges we face. Rebuilding trust was also a priority of the Austrian OSCE Chairmanship last year. My meeting with president Putin is therefore primarily aimed at discussing how we can rebuild trust. We will also talk about issues such as Russia-EU relations in general, the conflict in and around Ukraine as well the situation in Syria. I am convinced that in the long-term peace in Europe will only be possible with Russia and not against Russia.

Q.: What is your assessment of the current state of Russian-Austrian economic cooperation, what does the future hold, and what areas need strengthening? Will the topic of energy be on the summit‘s agenda? Is Austria going to try to influence such EU countries as Denmark, Sweden, and Poland, the main critics of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, so that they take a more constructive stance on the project and on reaching an agreement?

A.: We will of course also discuss the state of our good bilateral relations, encompassing our economic relations. Austrian companies have so far invested over 5 bn € in Russia. With respect to energy it is important to diversify our energy supply routes as well as our energy sources, the North Stream 2 should be seen in this context. So far the EU imports around 2/3 of the gas it needs, so it is clear that we should also diversify our supply routes. In Austria we are furthermore also proud that renewable energies make up around 1/3 of our national energy mix and that we reject the use of nuclear energy.

Q.: Last year, Austria presided in the OSCE, which is involved in trying to reach a Ukrainian settlement. Looking back, do you think there has been progress, or has the conflict in eastern Ukraine gotten closer to being frozen? What else can the OSCE do, given that Ukraine has become even more radical recently, with attacks on the office of Rossotrudnichestvo and offices of Russian banks in Kyiv taking place without any response from police, Kyiv has been dragging out the implementation of the Minsk Agreements but is in active talks with the United States over supplies of lethal weapons, including Javelin anti-tank systems?

A.: During my first visit as OSCE Chairman to eastern Ukraine in January last year I saw the unacceptable situation for civilians there. We must improve the living conditions for the local population, especially along the contact line. For this, access of humanitarian organizations is crucial. The level of violence that we still see is unacceptable. It remains vital that all sides fully implement the Minsk Agreements and strictly respect the ceasefire to which they have repeatedly committed themselves. In this respect, the OSCE’s Monitoring Mission (SMM) plays an important role to monitor the ceasefire and avoid a further escalation of the conflict. I am glad that we managed during our Chairmanship to reach an agreement about enlarging the mission’s footprint thereby increasing the reach and accuracy of monitoring. Furthermore, the OSCE with its Trilateral Contact Group demonstrated its crucial role in brokering the ceasefire co-operation.

Q.: Mr. Kurz, you have spent a lot of time working on migration issues over the course of your career. What is your assessment of the current migration situation in Austria and Europe in general? Is there dialogue between Austria and Russia on these topics? Should it be expanded, especially ahead of the 2018 World Cup? Are you ready to share your formula for success? And allow me to ask one more question: what is your assessment of Russia‘s initiatives on Syria, such as the congress in Sochi?

A.: The migration crisis isn’t over yet, just look at the projected demographic development on the African continent, only the numbers of illegal migrants arriving in the EU has decreased last year, and this is a positive development. But we still have to work hard to create a new European asylum system and secure our external borders. We, not the people smugglers, have to decide who is allowed to come to Europe. In order to achieve this we also need to provide more development cooperation in the countries of origin. It should be clear: those who try to enter the EU illegally should be rescued at sea and then sent back to their countries of origin or to safe zones in third countries, but not get a ticket to the EU. With respect to the conflict in Syria I fully support the mediation efforts of UN Special Envoy de Mistura whom I met just a few weeks ago during the last round of Syria talks in Vienna. There can only be a political solution for the conflict in Syria.

Q.: Austria will be presiding in the EU starting this July. Are you going to seek easing or lifting EU sanctions against Russia during the Austrian presidency, especially given that similar proposals have recently been voiced more frequently, particular in your neighbor, Germany?

A.: Russia is an important neighbor for the European Union. Fostering dialogue between Russia and the EU on various issues, ranging from foreign policy to human rights and civil society, is therefore in our mutual interest. Meetings between High Representative Federica Mogherini and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are important in this regard. While we support the EU-sanctions in place against Russia, we want to be helpful in finding a peaceful solution for the crisis in and around Ukraine through the implementation of the Minsk agreements. We need to create positive incentives in this regard, as the former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has proposed. If we see substantial progress with respect to the implementation of the Minsk agreements, we should consider lifting some of the EU-sanctions currently in place.