New era in Austria-Turkey ties amid Russia-Ukraine war?

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When Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer spoke with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan over the phone on April 10 it was not just the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine that was on the agenda. Certainly, it was the initial and most pressing reason for the conversation but soon it became obvious that possibly a new era between both nations was about to begin.

Let us focus first on Nehammer’s visit to Ukraine and soon thereafter to Moscow. Should these two trips have occurred a number of decades earlier no one would have been surprised, as the Austrian capital Vienna was a trademark for global diplomacy. This comment holds forth not just with a view that the capital hosts a large part of the United Nations administration and related agencies, but it was a given fact that Austrian politicians knew the fine line between on the one hand engaging in proactive diplomacy and, on the other, trying to lecture other nations about what – or about what better not – to do. To illustrate this further, Vienna was the international meetings location as if per default and that very often included preliminary gatherings behind closed doors before going public.

Over time, and ever more so in the more recent past, the country has embarked on an inward-looking course, a trend that started well before the onset of the global health situation caused by COVID-19.

Frequent changes in the government, including top ministerial posts, a number of scandals involving leading politicians (let us recall Ibiza, to name only one of them) and, of course, former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s complete withdrawal from all public offices dominated national as well as international headlines, instead of which conflict Austrian diplomats were eager to help in sorting out.

Not surprisingly, given the subject of global concern at hand, immediately after the planned visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin was confirmed by Nehammer on his social media account, two camps popped up. The first one challenged Nehammer, and in principle, criticized his trip even before it had begun; giving in to an aggressor was the overarching tone. However, there was a second opinion giving the chancellor the benefit of the doubt and focusing on his good intentions. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg confirmed this perspective when prompted by Viennese journalists.

Hence, it remains to be seen whether Nehammer stepping into the ring that reads “let us stop the war in Ukraine at once” was based on domestic considerations and intended for domestic consumption, so to speak, or was meant as a return to Austria’s previous role as a global peacebroker in the context of trying to find a diplomatic solution. If this time it does not work out, one thing is crystal clear: The person who started this illegal war is responsible for the failure of any potential talks and chances for lasting peace, and no one else.

Importance of the phone calls

Both Turkish and Austrian leaders spoke twice with each other in the past six days. In the first conversation, Nehammer briefed Erdoğan about his upcoming journey to Moscow and Erdoğan reiterated for his part that Turkey is ready to support any kind of peace initiative.

The relevance of Ankara in this process, which hopefully will soon lead to an end to bloodshed and suffering in Ukraine, cannot be stressed enough, as Nehammer had only informed European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, European Council President Charles Michel and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Erdoğan was the only leader of a fellow nation state and NATO member that was thus considered as confidante and partner of choice for Nehammer in discussing the future road map, a very welcome development.

Regardless of the rather skeptical summary of his visit to Putin and the overall bleak picture he painted as to how quickly the atrocities inflicted by Russian soldiers on the Ukrainian population will end, he tried to find a diplomatic solution. Even if this did not yield the expected results he nevertheless tried. Turkey for its part did the same – making clear it opposes the Russian invasion and aggression into neighboring Ukraine yet keeping diplomatic channels with Moscow open as wide as possible and employing a different approach from the European Union when it comes to sanctions. But both Ankara and Vienna vehemently and explicitly demand an end to the war, and by doing so, make it obvious who is responsible: Putin.

Vienna fully supports the option to hold another round of talks between Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul, further underlining Turkey’s standing. But Ankara knows only too well it needs support from all possible factions and sides should they materialize and lead to a solution.

More issues on the bilateral table

In his evaluation of the phone calls Erdoğan stressed that other topics are on the bilateral agenda as well. Reestablishing mutually beneficial contacts between both countries is a long overdue development and we must be clear: It was Vienna all too often misinterpreting reality, progress and reforms in modern Turkey, not the other way round.

Two topics are at the top of that list. First, the upgrading of the EU-Turkey Customs Union, including agriculture and services to be added, and the visa liberalization for bona fide visitors and businesspeople alike planning to travel from Turkey to Austria.

For quite some time, it had been expected that only heavyweights such as France or Germany could push through both items with the rest of the EU member states following suit. Perhaps the positive and honest new approach from Austria vis-a-vis partner country Turkey will change this perception; perhaps Vienna could become one of Ankara’s closest allies in this endeavor. And last but not least, by recalibrating her foreign policies, Austria might perhaps succeed in reformulating her domestic policies as well.

When the war is over

Everyone hopes the war in Ukraine will be over soon. Hence there will be a postwar reality on the ground. Turkey, Austria, NATO, the EU and everyone else must continue to make one point clear to Putin: Invading another nation has to be a thing of the past and will not be tolerated. Eventually a new peace-loving generation will emerge even – or shall we say in particular – in Russia and replace men in gray suits shielded from their very own electorate and wielding ill-fated power over their armed forces with democracy loving leaders, sparing the young conscripts who would not normally become killing machines unless so instructed.

We spoke about Austria’s previous role in the world of diplomacy and that it became a hallmark by not lecturing other nations but first listening to all sides of a conflict. Yet, in the case of Russia invading Ukraine, strong wording is the only alternative to sitting idle. Nehammer conveying the message that enough is enough was still part of a last-ditch diplomatic effort. Each and every EU leader should follow in his footsteps and travel to Moscow – not to court Putin but by letting him know the discontent of the entire world about his actions. As the chancellor returned, he painted the above mentioned rather skeptical picture of whether or not Putin can be convinced to change course – let others try as well, let the talks in Istanbul commence soon, let peace return to Ukrainian lands. Even in the case of war, should a diplomatic channel be opened up and used, as stopping bloodshed by whatever diplomatic or economic means, is a human duty.


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