When Austria’s foreign minister married her entrepreneur beau in a vineyard in the picturesque village of Gamlitz on Saturday, all the ingredients were there for the perfect wedding. But despite the sunny skies, idyllic location, and elite guestlist, the event was overshadowed by controversy surrounding the presence of one very notable attendee: Vladimir Putin.
The Russian president’s attendance at Karin Kneissl’s wedding, where he was photographed dancing with the bride, has sparked an uproar in Austria and elsewhere in Europe, highlighting concerns about Vienna’s growing drift into Moscow’s orbit. Opposition politicians criticized Kneissl for inviting Putin, saying the invitation undermined the European Union’s stance toward Moscow in response to Russian efforts to weaken and divide the bloc.
Evelyn Regner, a lawmaker for the opposition Social Democrats, said the invitation sent a "shameful" image of Austria to its European partners, labeling it "a provocation of European proportions.” The Green Party called for Kneissl's resignation over the invitation.
For decades, Austria has sought to act as an intermediary between Russia and the West, sustaining strong ties with both sides. But since a coalition government came into power last year comprising the far-right Freedom Party, which signed a cooperation pact with Putin's United Russia Party in 2016, the links with Moscow have become even more robust. Earlier this year, Austria was one of the few European countries not to expel Russian diplomats over allegations Moscow was behind the poisoning of a former double agent in the English town of Salisbury.
Kneissl, an academic and journalist before she entered her ministerial post in December, is officially an independent but was nominated for her political post by the Freedom Party. She shares the Freedom Party’s opposition to European Union sanctions against Moscow.
But Putin’s attendance at her wedding – where Austria’s two most powerful politicians, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vice Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache were also present – has led to criticisms that Austria’s government cannot play the role of honest broker between Moscow and the West.
“How is Austria's presidency of the EU meant to live up to the government's own claims of building bridges [between the EU and Russia] and being an honest broker, when Austria's foreign minister and chancellor are so obviously on one side?” said the Social Democrats’ Andreas Schieder.
Social Democrats MP Joerg Leichtfried said the damage was even more severe given that Austria currently held the rotating presidency of the European Union, which made it “all the more symbolic and harmful to court the Russian president in this manner.”
Putin’s presence also rang alarm bells in Ukraine, where the EU is involved in attempting to resolve the conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkim tweeted that Vienna would need to prove that Putin’s presence wouldn’t compromise its foreign policy, while Hanna Hopko, chair of Ukraine's foreign affairs committee, was even more strident.
"If you invite Vladimir Putin to your wedding, you are not neutral anymore," she tweeted. "From now on, Austria can't be a mediator in Ukraine. Period."
Austria’s government defended the invitation as a private matter, although local media subsequently reported that working talks took place on the sidelines of the wedding.
As for Putin, who brought with him a Cossack choir as a gift for the newlyweds, he was typically untroubled by the controversy stirred up by his presence. "It was a nice trip," he told reporters.
Cover: Russian President Vladimir Putin dances with Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl during her wedding to entrepreneur Wolfgang Meilinger. Background left: OPEC Secretary General Mohammed Barkindo. Alexei Druzhinin / Sputnik via AP