Putin visit boosts business but political tensions remain

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference in Vienna, photo: CTK

Human Rights in Chechnya, the future of Kosovo, press freedom, and the level of democracy in Russia were all topics on the agenda when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Austrian capital Vienna this week. But those issues took a back seat to business deals. Mr Putin's visit demonstrated how Russia and Central Europe are growing ever closer economically, even as political tensions are increasing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a news conference in Vienna, photo: CTK
Austria rolled out the red carpet for Putin and there was little sign of the tensions which marked the EU - Russia summit a week earlier. During the cold war Austria saw itself as a meeting place for communist east and capitalist west but now economy replaces ideology and business deals are more numerous than demonstrations. Russian billionaires are investing heavily in Austria and Austrian companies are leading an eastward charge in search of profits. Speaking ahead of the visit Russia expert Gerhard Mangott from the Austrian Institute for International Relations said disputes would be tackled but it was mostly about doing deals.

"They will talk of course about Kosovo. They will talk about the freedom, or lack of freedom of the media, the harassment of the NGO's, they will definitely address that. But beyond this they will also address things that are of mutual importance and that's very much trade. Trade is now more than 200 billion euros a year. They will talk about investment - Russian tycoons are starting to invest considerable amounts of money in Western enterprises - particularly in Austrian ones - and they will talk about energy and energy is of vital importance."

At an anti-Putin demonstration Chechyn refugees living in Vienna demanded Vladimir Putin face war crimes charges in the Hague. They carried placards with gruesome photos of relatives they claim were killed or tortured by Russian security forces. Ulrike Lunacek is an Austrian Greens member of the Austrian parliament who demonstrated along with the Chechyns.

"Their main message is that the war that is still going on in Chechnya - even though it is not declared officially - is something that has to be ended and that also the international community, Austria as part of it and the European Union should be more outspoken and should really demand a political solution for Chechnya from Putin."

Later at a press conference Mr Putin said Russia does not ignore its human rights critics. But immediately added it was not acceptable for other countries to take a patronising role towards Russia. And, according to Gerhard Mangott, on the subject of Chechnya the Kremlin strong man is particularly sensitive.

"Whenever talks come on Chechnya, Putin gets mad. That's the only thing that really gets him emotional. He's really a very self controlled person but when he's asked about Chechnya he's always getting emotional in every press conference we know."

While the divisions are many and deep at the moment so are the ties that bind Russia to Central Europe. Or, more accurately, the pipes that bind - pipes controlled by Russian companies which deliver gas and oil to an energy-needy region. Economist and energy expert Edward Christie says there is a mutual dependency.

"Essentially one has a symmetrical problem. Europe is concerned about security of supply, Russia is concerned about the security of demand. And Europe is by far the most important customer for Russia and furthermore one should point out that the Russian economy generally is not a particularly successful exporter and one of the few things that they do manage to export and make large profits on are fossil fuels - and their main buyer is indeed Europe."

President Putin came to Vienna accompanied by a number of Russian billionaires, the so-called Oligarchs. No surprises then that business deals running into billions of euros were announced during his 24 hour stay. Those who were hoping for political deals on Kosovo, Chechnya, press freedom, and a host of other issues - left empty handed.