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EXPLAINED: Why has Zelensky's speech to the Austrian parliament caused so much controversy?

Amanda Previdelli
Amanda Previdelli - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: Why has Zelensky's speech to the Austrian parliament caused so much controversy?
Pictured: Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelensky gestures as he attends a press conference with Austria's chancellor in Kyiv, on April 9, 2022. Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will make a video appearance in the Austrian parliament on Thursday - but his presence has already sparked criticism and protests. Why?


Ukrainian president Zelensky will speak in the Austrian parliament on Thursday via video link, a virtual appearance planned for a year ago but failed to happen due to strong opposition in Austria.

The criticism comes mainly from the far-right party FPÖ, which sees an invitation to Zelensky as an "attack on Austrian neutrality", according to party leader Herbert Kickl, who called for a "liberal protest" against the appearance on Thursday.

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Kickl said the virtual speech was "another disruptive fire against our everlasting neutrality". In a press release, he added: "Even though we condemn the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine: Austria is constitutionally a neutral state, perpetual neutrality is a cornerstone of our self-image, and the speech of a representative of a belligerent party in the heart of our democracy is an absolute taboo".


The far-right leader said Austria’s perpetual neutrality was a "unique domestic and foreign policy success story".

"We Freedom Party members are the only ones who vehemently defend this guarantor of Austria's peace and security in the interests of our own people, while the masses of ÖVP, Greens, SPÖ and NEOS, which have merged into a single party, are more or less openly putting our perpetual neutrality under constant fire."

READ ALSO: Four ways Austria has changed after one year of war in Ukraine

Kickl's statements align with the party's strategy of setting it aside from other political institutions in Austria. In several topics, far-right leaders have tried to position themselves as the "only ones" to "vehemently guarantee" something - be it Austria's neutrality or its borders.

They've also gained popularity by calling for protests, particularly against the Covid-19 measures such as lockdowns and a vaccine mandate in Austria. Now, Kickl said he would call a "Freedom Party protest" against the speech. However, he didn't specify the form that such a protest would take.

Austria neutrality

Austria’s decades-old (and constitutionally enshrined) neutrality was tested as Russia invaded its neighbour. Many were left wondering: what does it mean, really, to be neutral? And should Austria continue to be a neutral country?

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

On several occasions, chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) has said that Austria’s neutrality is not up for debate. The country finally seems to have reached a new type of neutrality: a military, albeit not a “political” one. Austria has decided to support Ukraine in words and by sending supplies – no arms or tanks, but health assistance.

However, the country's neutrality and ties to Russia - both economic and political - have put it in the spotlight for international criticism since the Ukraine war.

The Russian war has forced Austrian politicians to come to terms with the country’s long history of close ties with corrupt Russian politics and oligarchs. Austrian chancellor Karl Nehammer was also one of the few western political leaders to meet with Putin after the invasion – and his trip to Moscow was heavily criticised.


READ ALSO: UPDATE: Why is support for Austria’s far-right FPÖ rising?

The neutral country has also had to deal with other awkward moments. Most recently, it allowed sanctioned Russian delegates to come to Vienna for an OSCE meeting. Austria claimed that it couldn’t forbid members from coming to the meeting and acted according to the organisation's rules headquartered in the capital. Still, the arrival of the Russian delegates led to protests and the Ukrainian representatives boycotting the event.


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