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Russia: Austria's Neutral Status Resurfaces With Putin Visit

It's not clear how high the issue of Austrian neutrality will be on the agenda for Russian President Vladimir Putin's first state visit to the country that starts today. Austrian news reports say neutrality and NATO expansion are at the top of the agenda, but the Austrian government says economic issues will take the spotlight. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports that the future of Austrian neutrality is unclear.

Prague, 8 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Austria opted for neutrality in 1955 by choice in a successful bid by leading politicians to persuade the four leading powers at the time -- the U.S., France, Britain, and the Soviet Union -- to withdraw their occupation forces and enable Austria to be a fully sovereign state.

The four powers last reaffirmed their role as guarantors of Austria's neutrality and sovereignty in a ceremony on the 30th anniversary of the Austrian state treaty in 1985. But following the disintegration of the Soviet bloc and Austria's membership in the European Union in 1995, it is not clear what the future holds for neutrality. A public debate has even started in the past couple of years over whether the country should eventually join NATO.

As recently as two years ago, during the NATO air strikes against Yugoslavia, the then Socialist-led coalition government barred NATO warplanes and trains from crossing Austrian airspace and territory.

But the current right-wing coalition government of Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, in power for a year, has described the 1955 treaty as outdated and insists Austria has the right to renounce its neutral status. Although the government lacks enough votes in parliament to abolish neutrality, Schuessel continues to voice his support for NATO membership.

Austrian neutrality was always qualitatively different from that of neighboring Switzerland in that in Austria neutrality was never viewed as a national ideology. It was always seen as more of a necessity of the Cold War.

Putin, however, told a group of Austrian reporters at the Kremlin yesterday he believes that in the "new Europe" Austria's neutrality is as "meaningful and relevant as it ever was."

In a separate interview with Austrian public TV and radio (ORF) yesterday, Putin said Austrian neutrality was "a question that the Austrian people themselves must decide."

He says Austria's neutral status "was never an obstacle for Austria's successful integration" into European and world structures. And he asked rhetorically: "Now that there are no more external threats and the Soviet Union no longer exists, what is it about neutrality that bothers Austria so?"

Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner responded today before Putin had landed in Vienna. She said: "although the issue of preserving or changing Austria's neutrality is not to be solved immediately, Austria must have the right to decide by itself, how it will ensure its safety in the future." She says the main objective in "a new Europe" must be to prevent wars by means of a common foreign and security policy within the framework of the EU, WEU, and NATO, adding that membership in NATO or the WEU precludes neutrality.

Austria is highly sensitive to any Russian remark about its status. In what the Austrian media describe as the strongest words in years on neutrality from a Russian official, Russian Ambassador to Austria Aleksandr Golovin said recently in an interview with a news weekly "Format:" "we continue to perceive Austria as a neutral state. It is in the interest of the Russian Federation that it remains so." Golovin said Austria is bound by international law to uphold its neutrality through the State Treaty and the Law on Neutrality, and thus it is not solely a matter for Austria to decide.

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia urged Austria to agree to a new accord on neutrality. But Austria declined. Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov, on a visit to Vienna in 1996, said Russia would not like to see Austria join NATO. But Primakov said at the time neutrality was "Austria's own choice."

Putin's visit marks the first time a Kremlin leader has paid a state visit to Austria. Two previous visits from Moscow were solely to participate in U.S.-Soviet summits: Nikita Khrushchev came in 1961 to meet John F. Kennedy and Leonid Brezhnev came 22 years ago to meet Jimmy Carter. Boris Yeltsin had been due to visit three years ago but had to cancel on short notice because of ill health.

At least part of Putin's visit will be to try to persuade the Austrians to purchase 30 MiG-29 fighter jets worth some $1.4 billion as a way of paying down Russian debt to Austria.

Putin told Austrian reporters his chances of success are poor, but he described the MiG-29 as the "best airplane in its class in the world today." He said:

"The financial conditions for the Austrian side, in my view, are absolutely ideal because the Austrian side would have to pay only 50 percent of the price and the other 50 percent could be covered [as repayment of] Soviet debts [to Austria]."

Austrian Defense Minister Herbert Scheibner has ruled out purchasing the MiGs.

The Russian Ministry for Economic Development today said the Soviet overall debt to Austria is about $3.3 billion, of which Russia's debt to Austria for loans and interest through the Paris Club of creditors is put at $2 billion.

Nevertheless, Austro-Russian trade is booming, with Russian imports of Austrian goods up by nearly 50 percent during the first nine months of last year, and exports (80 percent of which are fuels and electric power) to Austria up nearly 80 percent during the same period.

After talks with Austrian political and business leaders in Vienna today and tomorrow, Putin and his entourage are due to fly to the Tyrol to spend the weekend on the slopes of Arlberg, where the World Ski Championships are due to conclude. While there, Putin will meet with the presidents of Slovenia and Slovakia.