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POLITICS

EXPLAINED: Why Austria won’t allow Ukraine’s Zelensky to speak before parliament

A proposal by liberal party NEOS to invite Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky to make a speech to the Austrian parliament has brought back old neutrality feuds.

Austrian President Alexander Van Der Bellen (R) and his wife Doris Schmidauer (L) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (2ndR) and his wife Olena Zelenska (2ndL) listen to the national anthems in Vienna, Austria on September 15, 2020, during a welcoming ceremony at the beginning of Zelensky's state visit. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP
Austrian President Alexander Van Der Bellen (R) and his wife Doris Schmidauer (L) and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (2ndR) and his wife Olena Zelenska (2ndL) listen to the national anthems in Vienna, Austria on September 15, 2020, during a welcoming ceremony at the beginning of Zelensky's state visit. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

The German Bundestag, US Congress, European Parliament, the Israeli Knesset and Westminster.

The list of parliamentary houses where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has (remotely) spoken is impressive. So why is the Austrian parliament, or its Nationalrat chamber, not among them?

This Tuesday, liberal party NEOS posted on its social media that it wanted to “allow the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to speak in the National Council”. They then said:

“However, our proposal did not receive the approval of the SPÖ and FPÖ. This mistaken idea of neutrality leaves us wondering!”

Austrian neutrality

The right-wing party FPÖ was quick to make an announcement stating that Austrian neutrality is “an achievement that we are rightfully proud of”, according to a social media post.

The party presented a five-point document to preserve Austrian neutral status, which included “mediating instead of sanctioning” and “a no-fly and no-transport zone” in the country.

Party leader Herbert Kickl justified the rejection of a Zelensky appearance, saying that they would also be against a speech by Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Austria in NATO?

The issue of Austrian neutrality has been highly debated recently, as Russia invaded Ukraine and several talks began arising regarding Austria’s role in such a conflict and in sanctions against the Russians.

Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) had to come out and state that discussions on Austria’s status were not needed at the moment and that Austria was, is, and would remain neutral.

SPÖ ‘not against it’

SPÖ said that statements that it had been against an invitation for Zelensky to talk to parliament were false. In a press release, the centre-left party noted that there was a “short political discussion” on the subject last week, with no vote or decision.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The history behind Austria’s neutrality

The party stated that, during the discussion, it “pointed out that Austria’s neutral status must be taken into account”, adding that such a status could be of great advantage when it comes to acting as an intermediary.

Finally, the SPÖ added that it wouldn’t oppose such an invitation.

“One thing is clear: Austria strongly condemns the Russian war of aggression on Ukraine by the Putin regime because Austria is never neutral towards the violation of international law and human rights”.

‘He said, she said’

While the SPÖ statement said Neos’s claim was false, the liberal party called the latest red press release “an obvious change of heart”.

“Now that almost all parties seem to be in favour of a Zelensky speech, we propose a special meeting next week, during which it could take place”, according to the liberals.

READ ALSO: Ukraine conflict: Would NATO protect non-member Austria?

Traditionally, an invitation can only be issued by the National Council president, currently ÖVP politician Wolfgang Sobotka. However, he told APA today he would only invite the Ukrainian president to speak with Parliament if there were agreements between the different groups of parliamentarians.

How much of an agreement, considering that the FPÖ has not had a ‘change of heart’, is not certain. 

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ENERGY

ENERGY CRISIS: Will Austria have enough gas for winter?

In recent months, there have been fears that Austria will not have enough gas for the winter season. The good news is that gas storage facilities are filling up, but by how much? Here's an update.

ENERGY CRISIS: Will Austria have enough gas for winter?

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February and the EU imposed sanctions on the Kremlin, there have been concerns in Austria about the domestic energy supply.

The biggest worry is that Austria will not have enough gas for the coming heating season, which could quickly become a crisis when coupled with skyrocketing energy prices.

On Tuesday (August 16th), the European Aggregated Gas Storage Inventory confirmed that Austria’s gas storage capacity is now 60 percent full. This is already a significant improvement from early April, when reserves were just over 10 percent full.

Austria’s goal is to reach 80 percent capacity by November 1st in order to have a safety reserve. 

READ ALSO: Where are energy prices going up (again) in Austria?

But the Wiener Zeitung reports that there are questions over where the gas has come from as Gazprom has reduced deliveries to Austria’s OMV (the partially-state owned energy company) by two thirds.

Where is the gas coming from?

Christoph Dolna-Gruber, an energy advisor at the Austrian Energy Agency, said the origin of the gas “is not explicitly known”.

For example, from October 2022 to September 2023, OMV has secured additional natural gas supplies of 40 TWh from Norway and the Netherlands, reports the Wiener Zeitung.

The Austrian Federal Government has also secured 20 TWh of gas from two tenders, of which 8.5 TWh has been confirmed by the Ministry of the Environment to be from non-Russian sources.

However, the gas storage operators do not publish data on customers and contractual partners, so the origin is not in the public domain.

The extra 20 TWh of gas will be owned by the state but it is still unclear how it will be “handled” (e.g. for domestic use or for redistribution outside of Austria).

FOR MEMBERS: Why (and when) double-digit inflation is set to hit Austria

How much gas can Austria store?

The capacity of Austria’s gas storage facilities is 95.5 terawatt hours (TWh) or 8.6 billion cubic metres. The gas is stored underground in depleted natural gas reservoirs at a depth of between 500 and 2,300 metres.

Austria’s gas storage facilities are located in Haidach, Aigelsbrunn, Auerbach (the facility is known as 7-Fields), Puchkirchen, Haag, Tallesbrunn and Schönkirchen. All of the facilities are in Salzburg or Lower Austria.

OMV manages 26 percent (25.3 TWh) of Austria’s natural gas storage volume and the rest is divided between RAG, Uniper Energy and Astora.

The Haidach storage facility was previously managed by Gazprom and Astora, but the agreement with Gazprom came to an end earlier this month after Gazprom stopped making deliveries.

Since August 1st, Haidach has been managed by Astora and RAG. 

READ ALSO: Vienna forced to dim street lighting and cancel some Christmas illuminations

How much does Austria rely on Russian gas?

Prior to the war, Austria relied on Russia for 80 percent of its total gas consumption. This has reduced in recent months but Austria is still heavily dependent on Russia for its gas supply.

And following Gazprom’s announcement on Tuesday that gas prices could rise by up to 60 percent in the coming months for European customers, Austrian residents should expect further increases to their gas bills this winter.

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