Why did Austria change policy to expel Russian diplomats?

Despite criticising other EU nations for expelling Russian diplomats on Wednesday, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared four Russian representatives as "personae non gratae" just one day later. Here's why.

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg. Photo: JOHANNA GERON / POOL / AFP
Austria's Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg has followed other EU countries in expelling Russian diplomats. Photo: JOHANNA GERON / POOL / AFP

Early this Thursday, Austria announced its decision to revoke the diplomatic status of three staff members of the Russian Embassy in Vienna and one staff member of the Russian Consulate General in Salzburg.

A statement by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the reason for the move was “the fact that their activities have not been in accordance with their diplomatic status”.

According to the Ministry, those expelled had taken actions in contravention with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, the primary legal instrument which governs diplomatic relations between countries.  

The Ministry added that the staff members were declared personae non gratae under Article 9 of the Convention, which allows countries to expel diplomats without explaining their decision.

The staff members were requested to leave the territory of Austria by the end of 12 April at the latest.

The announcement comes after days of hesitation and statements by Austria’s Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg (ÖVP) criticising other European nations for expelling Russian diplomats.

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

On Wednesday, Schallenberg reaffirmed Austria’s position that it would not be expelling diplomats. 

“We do not expel in bulk” Schallenberg said on Wednesday, explaining he “find(s) it regrettable that each state is acting individually here”. 

However said he would consider doing so in future if there were “strong indications” of violations of the Convention by diplomats. 

“I reserve the right to expel diplomats,” he said. 

Schallenberg said he was concerned that Russia would take “reciprocal action” if Austria was to expel Russian diplomats from the country.

However, the minister added that the Russian embassy in Vienna was a “propaganda machine” and that measures would be taken if evidence were to support it.

The move is seen as a symbolic step, as approximately 290 Russian diplomats remain in Austria. Austria has 33 diplomats in its embassy in Moscow. 

Russian diplomats expelled from European countries

Since Monday, more than 200 Russian diplomats have been told to leave Europe countries after reports of civilian deaths in Ukrainian towns hit news outlets worldwide.

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

Germany, France, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Slovakia, Poland, Netherlands, Italy and several other countries have expelled Russian diplomats since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Austria has already stated that its “perpetually neutral” status was only regarding military activities. However, it would not stay neutral when it comes to human rights, as reported.

Symbolic step

The expulsion of four diplomats can be seen as a symbolic step, as Russia currently has 146 diplomats bilaterally accredited in Austria, according to Die Presse.

READ ALSO: Is Austria’s capital Vienna really a ‘city of spies’?

Adding the number of Russian diplomats and staff in international organisations headquartered in Austria, there are a total of 290 Russian personnel in the country. At the same time, Austria has accredited 33 people to its Moscow embassy.

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Russia suspends gas to Italy after ‘problem’ in Austria

Russia's Gazprom has suspended gas deliveries to Italy's Eni, blaming a transport problem in Austria, the Italian energy giant said on Saturday.

Russia suspends gas to Italy after 'problem' in Austria

“Gazprom told us that it was not able to confirm the delivery of the volumes demanded for today, citing the impossibility of gas transport through Austria,” Eni said in a statement.

As a result, “Russian gas flows to Eni via the Tarvisio entry point will be naught”, it said.

In a statement published on Telegram, Gazprom said the problem was due to regulatory changes in Austria that took place at the end of September and that it was working with Italian customers to resolve the issue.

According to Gazprom, the Austrian gas grid operator had refused to confirm the transport nominations.

In Austria, regulatory authority E-Control said the new rules, which entered into force on Saturday, had been “known to all market actors for months”.

It said it expected “all to conform and take the necessary measures to fulfil their obligations”.

The problems were related to “contractual details” linked to the transit of gas towards Italy, it said on Twitter, adding in response to a tweeted question that this currently had “no effect” on users in Austria.

Most of Russian gas delivered to Italy passes via Ukraine through the Trans Austria Gas Pipeline (TAG), to Tarvisio in northern Italy on the border with Austria.

Before the war in Ukraine, Italy imported 95 percent of the gas it consumes — about 45 percent of which came from Russia.

Outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi has signed new deals with other gas producers to reduce Italy’s reliance on Russia, lowered to 25 percent as of June, while accelerating a shift towards renewable energies.