RD Interview: Russian Ambassador to Austria Dmitry Lyubinsky discusses relations between Moscow and Vienna, as well as between Russia and the EU.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, speaking with his Austrian counterpart Sebastian Kurz during their meeting in Moscow, April 5, 2016. Photo: Pool photo via AP

As Austria prepares for the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2017, debate continues to emerge about the changing environment for European security. New problems like the migration crisis and international terrorism are now attracting even greater attention, and there is also speculation about what Brexit and the presidency of Republican Donald Trump might mean for NATO and European collective security.

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In order to clarify these questions, Russia Direct recently sat down with Russian Ambassador to Austria Dmitry Lyubinsky, who analyzes the key factors impacting the trajectory of Russian-Austrian and Russian-EU relations headed into 2017. As Lyubinsky points out, there is growing consensus in Austria and elsewhere in Europe that Russia needs to be part of the overall discussion on European security.

Russia Direct: Have the changes in the Austrian leadership – the new Chancellor, the additional round of presidential elections coming up – affected Russian-Austrian relations in any way?

Dmitry Lyubinsky: The relations are very stable. We maintain constant dialogue with all political parties in Austria. Both now and in the future, it is crucial that we have a solid agenda. It is characterized by trust in political dialogue and rich traditions as far as our ties are concerned. Of course, there are complications caused by the sanctions policy of the EU, but there is also a mutual understanding that we are moving forward where it is possible.

RD: And where is it possible? Is this the purpose of the Russian-Austrian Year of Tourism that has recently been announced?

D.L.: When I was appointed Ambassador to Austria a year ago, I was thinking, of course, where are the positive moments that would allow us to advance bilateral relations in the current period of uneasy relations between Russia and the EU. There were several such ideas, one of them to hold the Year of Tourism.

On the one hand, there were already positive examples, such as the one with Italy, which worked out really well. On the other hand, tourism between Russia and Austria is an obvious theme. Lastly, tourism is a field, to which one can attach anything – culture, sport, extreme travel and many other things.

Advancing cooperation is possible in the humanitarian field, which is not limited by anything. It is possible in interregional cooperation, which is developing actively. Recently the Governor of Tyrol, Günter Platter, was in Moscow, where he held very productive talks and offered a positive agenda aimed at developing a whole range or cooperation.

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We also agreed that in spring we would hold a special conference together with Tyrolean business. We have wonderful contacts with the Austrian business community. On Nov. 18 we are holding a meeting of Russian-Austrian business councils and a meeting of Russian and Austrian regions.

RD: What is happening with the trade relations between the two countries?

D.L.: As with the trade balance between Russia and all EU countries, it continues to drop and the trend is so far negative. At the same time, there are about 1,200 Austrian companies operating in Russia and the embassy is not aware of any examples of one of them leaving the Russian market. On the contrary, there are examples of positive development of investment cooperation. If in the past we used to say that the term “Made in Austria” is important for Russian consumers, today it is no longer relevant – the label is always “Made in the EU.”

But in recent years, the term “Made with Austria” is becoming more and more relevant. When we talk to Austrian business these days, we say: Let us place the emphasis on cooperation. We have several positive facts in the recent year, when Austrian business continues to invest in Russia, increasing production, creating new enterprises together with Russian companies. It is one of the factors that contribute to the growth of the Russian economy.

RD: I came across the opinion that, if we live under the conditions of Cold War 2.0, Austria can play a role similar to the one it played during the Cold War 1.0. In a situation, where Germany is becoming more and more immersed in the Transatlantic relationship and is essentially giving up the traditional Ostpolitik, conditions are emerging for Austria to become the connecting link between the EU and Russia. Do you think such a concept may have a practical prospect?

D.L.: I would not overestimate Austria’s role in contemporary Europe, and in the same way, I would not underestimate Austria’s role. We are trying to do very concrete things, and many of them work out. We feel the support of the Austrian government in seeing the sanctions as a dead end policy, from which we need to find a way out together. On the other hand, we feel more and more the support of the Austrian business, the Chamber of Economy of Austria and other associations. There are no limits to developing contacts and ideas for the future.

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I am often asked regarding Russian counter-sanctions. If Austria is such a good country and it conducts such a nice policy, why is Austria being punished, too? The answer is very simple: there can be no exceptions. Sanctions against Russia are a decision of 28 countries and the counter-sanctions pertain also to all EU countries.

Russia is not asking for anything. Sanctions need to be lifted by a decision of the EU. But we advise our Austrian friends to be ready for the moment when sooner or later the sanctions will be lifted and, if they are ready, they will be in the first row on the start and it can give them a tangible advantage.

RD: Some experts are saying that sanctions have become a new normal and one should not count on them being terminated, as there are many very lengthy sanctions regimes in the world. Do you think that the sanctions between Russia and the EU will one day come to an end?

D.L.: I am absolutely convinced that sanctions are a dead end policy that damages both sides. This idea gets stronger and stronger in Europe. In Austria, you feel it very clearly.

RD: Next year Austria will chair the OSCE. Obviously, as far as the contacts with the Austrian OSCE Chairmanship are concerned, you will be working together with another Russian diplomatic mission in Vienna – the Permanent Representation to the OSCE. But the Embassy will also bear part of the burden to coordinate. What does the Russian diplomatic service expect from the Austrian OSCE Chairmanship?

D.L.: You are right, we will be providing support to our colleagues in the Russian Mission to the OSCE during this period. It is their turf. But contacts with the Austrian Chairmanship will be the function of the Embassy. I don’t want to say that we have excessive expectations. We should wait for the Ministerial Council in Hamburg on Dec. 8 and 9. We are already talking to the future Austrian Chairmanship. We are discussing possible topics that can be advanced during this period. But it is hard to predict the outcome.

RD: Some experts argue that Russia manipulates the problem of migration in Europe to heighten the internal contradictions within the EU. Do you agree with it and can Russia contribute to solving the European refugee crisis?

D.L.: Russia is in no way interested in heightening Europe’s problems. We need the EU as a strong partner, with whom many problems need to be solved. When the migration crisis was starting, we offered our experience, consultations, and a search for common solutions.

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It is even more important, since there are no solutions other than settlement of the situations in the regions, where the migration flows are coming from. It is hard to imagine such solutions without Russia’s participation. But it is definitely not us who severed the channels of consultation and cooperation between Russia and NATO. The only way out is to stop these obstructions and turn to a collective joint approach.