Putin to attend Austrian foreign minister's wedding, reportedly with gift of a Cossack choir
August 18 at 3:18 AM
BERLIN â" Itâs the wedding event of the Austrian summer, and all the stars of the countryâs political universe will be there. Plus one very special foreign guest.
When Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl gets married at a vineyard in the hills of southern Austria on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin will be on hand to give his blessing. And heâs bringing along a Cossack choir that will perform as a gift to the newlyweds, the Austrian media reported.
The countryâs foreign ministry said the ceremony would be private, and the media was expected to be kept away. But with Putinâs attendance, the personal event has taken on a very public meaning for Europe. And it has generated a backlash within Austria.
Austria has for decades been neutral in the struggle between East and West, maintaining strong ties with bot h Russia and with its allies in the European Union, not to mention the United States.
But the small Alpine country of 9 million has pivoted closer to Moscow since the end of last year, when a government coalition of the center-right Peopleâs Party and the far-right Freedom Party took office. The latter in 2016 signed a cooperation pact with Putinâs United Russia Party.
The 53-year-old Kneissl, an academic and journalist before taking office in December, is officially independent. But she was selected for her post by the Freedom Party.
Like the party, she opposes Europeâs sanctions against Russia. When other E.U. nations expelled Russian diplomats in March in retaliation for the poisoning of a former Russian double agent on British soil, Austria pointedly declined to take part. As Putin and President Trump planned their summit this summer, the Kremlin initially favored Vienna as the venue before Helsinki won out.
Although Kneissl is not believed t o be personally close to Putin, she invited him to her wedding when he visited Vienna in June. The Kremlin announced he had accepted the invitation this week. Kneissl will marry Wolfgang Meilinger, an entrepreneur.
The wedding gives Putin a highly symbolic platform to demonstrate his deepening ties with political leaders in Europe. Putin has long regarded the E.U. as an adversary, and Russia has sought to sow division on the continent. That effort has received a boost in recent years by the electoral success of populist parties, many of which share Moscowâs contempt for Brussels.
The timing is particularly apt for Putin given that Austria currently holds the rotating E.U. presidency.
In addition to Putin, the two most powerful figures in Austria â" Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vice Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache, who leads the Freedom Party â" are also expected to attend Saturdayâs wedding. Kurz has called for Austria to be âa bridge builderâ betw een Russia and the West.
There was no official confirmation Saturday morning of Austrian media reports that Putin intended to bring along the Cossack choir. The Kremlin said on Wednesday that the Russian president had personally chosen his wedding gift for Kneissl, but would not reveal details.
Putinâs presence was criticized by opposition lawmakers in Austria.
Michel Reimon, a Green Party member of the European Parliament, told reporters that the invitation had âsquandered the good reputation of the country.â He called on Kneissl to resign.
âHow is Austria's presidency of the European Union meant to live up to the governmentâs own claims of building bridges and being an honest broker when Austriaâs foreign minister and chancellor are so obviously on one side?â asked Andreas Schieder, a lawmaker from the center-left Social Democrats.
That view was echoed in Ukraine, where Russia has used military force to annex territory â" Crim ea â" and to support separatists attempting to cleave off even more of the country.
âIf you invite Vladimir Putin to your wedding, you are not neutral anymore,â tweeted Ukrainian foreign affairs committee chair Hanna Hopko. âFrom now on, Austria canât be a mediator in Ukraine. Period.â
Putinâs attendance at the wedding was expected to overshadow his visit to Germany later on Saturday, when he is due to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel for the second time in the past three months.
The pair was expected to focus talks at Merkelâs countryside residence Meseberg, outside Berlin, on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. No major decisions are expected, but the two have stepped up their engagement as ties with the United States have frayed.
âRussia is an international actor without whom the solution of various international problems is unthinkable,â Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert told journalists on Friday. âThatâs the value of such m eetings.â
Read more: Austriaâs far-right government ordered a raid on its own intelligence service. Now allies are freezing the country out.
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