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News conference following talks with Austrian Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen

May 15, 2019, Sochi

Following consultations, the President of Russia and the Federal President of Austria gave a joint news conference.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Mr Federal President, ladies and gentlemen, we are pleased to welcome and receive Mr Alexander Van der Bellen and his spouse in Russia.

Notably, this day next year, May 15, will mark the 65th anniversary of signing the fundamental state treaty between the four victorious powers in World War II and the Austrian side to reinstate an independent and democratic Austria. This document became an important building block of post-war life in Europe, guaranteeing Austria’s neutral status and peaceful future.

I want to emphasise that relations between Russia and the Republic of Austria have for decades rested on the principles of neighbourliness, mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests. We maintain an intensive political dialogue. Mr Van der Bellen and I met in Vienna a year ago. We keep in touch with Federal Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz as well. I saw him at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing not long ago.

Today’s talks with the President of Austria were held in a traditionally friendly and businesslike atmosphere, and showed Russia and Austria’s interest in the progressive expansion of bilateral ties. We had a restricted-format meeting, followed by a meeting with the participation of ministers and heads of departments and major companies, where we discussed in detail almost every aspect of Russian-Austrian cooperation and outlined specific plans for the future.

Austria is one of Russia's major economic partners in Europe, therefore, during the talks, we paid much attention to trade and investment cooperation. Last year, bilateral trade increased by over 40 percent to reach almost $6 billion. At the beginning of this year, trade increased by another 76 percent. The amount of accumulated Russian investment in the Austrian economy exceeds $27 billion, and Austrian investment in Russia is approaching $5.5 billion.

These achievements are largely facilitated by the efficient work of the Mixed Russian-Austrian Commission for Trade and Economic Cooperation and its meeting on the sidelines of the St Petersburg Economic Forum in May of last year. Incidentally, the Austrian delegation was one of the most substantial at the forum. We hope that this year Austrian businesspeople will also be active at the forum.

We also look forward to the arrival of Austrian industrialists at the INNOPROM international exhibition and a global summit on production and industrialisation that will be held in Yekaterinburg in July. We have invited Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to these important events. We hope he will accept the invitation and head the Austrian delegation.

I would like to note that Russian and Austrian companies closely cooperate on various industrial projects: in equipment manufacturing, high-tech and communications.

Austria has invested in over 1,200 companies in Russia. They want to develop long-term business in this country and increase localisation. Thus, in June RusHydro and Voith Hydro plan to develop equipment for power stations in Saratov Region. Gabriel-Chemie is building a plant to produce colourants and additives for plastics, while Green Source and Core Value are launching the manufacture of components for solar power stations in Ulyanovsk Region. These projects are carried out under the 2011 Declaration on Partnership for Modernisation. In all, the two countries plan to implement 28 joint innovation projects, which are valued at about 3 billion euros.

Energy is key to bilateral interaction. For over half a century now, Russia has been a steady supplier of energy to Austria. Record-breaking volumes of Russian natural gas – over 12 billion cubic metres – were made available to Austrian consumers last year. Gazprom and OMV are carrying out a project to develop the South Russian oil and gas field, and are jointly building Nord Stream 2. We, in Russia, greatly appreciate Austria’s consistent support of this project, which is designed to ensure the energy security of the entire European continent.

Extensive international contacts and region-to-region contacts are an important part of bilateral cooperation. Russian Regions Day, with the participation of 14 Russian regions and over 150 representatives of Austrian companies and federal departments, was held in Vienna in March with good results. Of course, I would be remiss not to mention our active cultural and people-to-people contacts and ties.

This year marks the cross year of youth exchanges designed to help young Russians and Austrians learn more about the two countries’ cultural heritage. An agreement was reached to hold Literature and Theatre Year in 2020–2021. The corresponding departments have started preparing an extensive programme of activities to promote literary and theatrical art and to expand the use of the Russian and German languages.

Notably, civil society cooperation is making great strides. Shortly after the talks, Mr Van der Bellen and I will meet with participants of the constituent meeting of the Sochi Dialogue Forum, which we agreed to institute at our meeting in Vienna last year. I expect that the forum will focus on strengthening diverse ties between the citizens of our countries in science, the arts, sports and education.

In closing, I would like to thank the Federal President of Austria and our Austrian colleagues for the substantive and constructive dialogue and for the constructive and substantive talks. I am confident that the agreements we reached today will benefit Russian-Austrian relations in their entirety.

Thank you.

Federal President of Austria Alexander Van der Bellen (retranslated): Mr President,

Thank you very much for inviting me to Sochi and giving me such a friendly welcome.

I had an interesting and substantive discussion with President Putin and the Government. We had an opportunity to exchange opinions, arguments and different perspectives on a number of issues.

Russia and Austria traditionally enjoy excellent relations, and not just in the 21st century, but long before that as well. President Putin mentioned the 1955 Austrian State Treaty, the anniversary of which we are marking today. It was signed in Austria on May 15, 1955, thus proclaiming the sovereignty of Austria as a follow-up to the 1943 Moscow Declaration. Thus, we can point to long-term Austrian-Russian relations.

We plan to deepen these relations in a variety of areas. I am pleased to inform the President that the Salzburg Museum is prepared to bring back, in the autumn, the antiquities that were removed from Russian collections during World War II. Of course, we discussed the possibility of restitution regarding the so-called ‘Jewish archives,’ which were relocated from Austria to Russia during the war.

I covered various areas, ranging from culture and science to the economy, primarily, energy, where our cooperation spans decades.

Last year, we marked the 50th anniversary of cooperation between OMV and Gazprom. You see, it goes back to Soviet times.

Austria is represented in Russia by hundreds of enterprises and divisions. Former president of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber Christoph Leitl said Austrian companies come here to stay. Please do not take this as a threat; no, I am talking about cooperation and mutual interests.

We talked about international relations, for instance, between the European Union and Russia. It is no secret that the predecessors in Ukraine were irritated by Russia-EU relations. I said I would be happy if there were a positive impetus from either side as regards the implementation of the Minsk agreements. However, let us be realistic; now we need to wait for the developments regarding the parliamentary election in Ukraine in October.

However, as I said, Austria’s long-standing mantra is to maintain dialogue despite very different opinions on some issues.

We had an interesting conversation about yesterday’s visit of Secretary of State Pompeo, in part, as regards the Iranian issue, what this will or may mean for EU-Russia relations and so on.

You know, big regrets were expressed here over the JCPOA cancellation and the sanctions that are imposed by the USA against Iran and indirectly against EU member states.

I am happy that now President Putin and I will join the Sochi Dialogue constituent meeting. I am always fighting with the definition between “civil” and “civic” because it is primarily about cooperation at many different levels: culture, art, science and maybe writing and music, etc. It is not necessarily linked to politics. I think the Sochi Dialogue forum should further deepen and consolidate Austrian-Russian relations.

There are similar forums between Russia and Germany and Russia and France. Mr Putin, I used this opportunity and will use it again to invite you to visit Salzburg, the Salzburg festival. Next year, in 2020, we will celebrate the centenary of this event and there will be very interesting items on the programme of Russian origin on this occasion. This has been confirmed. Russia’s cultural contribution to this festival is a tradition and therefore I will be very happy to see you there.

Thank you very much for the invitation to Sochi. I was very pleased to see something new; this is not a traditional visit to the capital, this is something different. Thank you very much.

Question (retranslated): I would like to talk about your conversation with Mr Pompeo.

Mr President Putin, you said that both sides are interested in restoring relations between the United States and Russia in full. What has to be done to get there? And are you ready for a personal meeting with Mr Trump? What do you think about the idea of holding this summit in Vienna, where the nuclear deal on Iran was concluded?

Vladimir Putin: Vienna is a good place to hold talks at the highest level, but, as I understand it, the closest opportunity to see President Trump will be in Japan during the G20 meeting. If the United States is willing to continue contacts in this special mode – I have spoken about this on many occasions – we are open to having these talks anywhere, including Vienna.

I discussed bilateral relations with the Secretary of State yesterday, and recently with President Trump over the telephone. I can say, at least, this is what we feel, that our US partners are interested in restoring relations. In any case, in the telephone conversation with the President and yesterday with the Secretary of State, we outlined the issues of mutual interest that go beyond bilateral relations, such as strategic stability, international security and non-proliferation. Our basic agreement in this area, START-3, expires in 2021. We need to think about the next step, to renew it or not to renew it. If we choose to renew, then we need to start full-scale talks now.

We certainly have a common interest in settling regional conflicts, such as Afghanistan, Syria and other troubled areas. Unfortunately, there are many of them today. This work is unlikely to have any effect without our active involvement. Finally, the North Korean problem. We are interested in having it resolved in a way that would have all parties satisfied with the results of the solution.

Finally, the Iranian nuclear problem and the JCPOA is also a very sensitive issue that is linked with the entire scope of situations in the Middle East.

Thus, there are many shared interests. I believe we have things to focus on in the economic sphere as well. I said yesterday that the United States had become the world’s largest oil producer, so we need to ponder our influence on the global energy market.

There are other areas as well. It is a known fact that most Boeing airplanes are made with Russian titanium. We know this, but few people in the world are aware of it. There are other areas of mutual interest as well. Therefore, we remain open to opportunities. It is not about us; it is about our US partners. As soon as they are ready to go, and as soon as the political situation in their country changes and things become possible, we are willing to turn on everything that is needed on our part.

I hope that proper conditions are being created gradually, especially after Mr Mueller’s report, who stated that there was no collusion between Russia and the current US administration. To reiterate, there was no interference in the elections whatsoever. Let us see what happens next.

Question: I have a question to both leaders. What do you think about US threats of possible sanctions over Nord Stream 2? Can the Austrian company OMV quit this project because of such risks?

Alexander Van der Bellen: I think I can say that OMV does not have the slightest intention of quitting Nord Stream 2. Austria is not going to abandon the Nord Stream 2 project. OMV is an Austrian gas company and they certainly do not have any such intention. We have invested too much to make this second opportunity for gas transit a reality, and we will certainly continue to pursue it.

If American gas were cheaper that Russian gas from Siberia, maybe the ratio would change in some way, but now there is no reason to do this. American LNG is much more expensive than our current sources. So there is no economic reason at all to change our position.

Vladimir Putin: As for the attempts by our US partners to destroy these or other agreements (I am referring to Nord Stream 2 and some other projects), we have said many times, and I want to repeat this, that, taken under the pretext of various political reasons, these are attempts to engage in unfair competition. There is nothing else behind this. Yes, our partners know that their product is more expensive and that its quality is no better, but they are still trying to impose their services on their partners, both in defence and in the economy. Austria may not be the largest country in the world but in this case, it does not need nuclear weapons or a large territory to defend its national interests. Political will is all that is required.

Of course, companies have to take into account this pressure, especially those that operate in the US market. There is nothing to hide: dependence on the dollar and cooperation with the US is heavy in today’s world. But this is the sovereign decision of a country or a company, our partner. As far as we know, OMV is ready to work with us in the future despite this attempt at unfair competition.

But I believe other companies also realise their responsibility to their national economies. This is a serious issue – the cost of the primary source. Either the entire energy industry of this or that country will cost more, and hence, its economy will be less competitive, or the consumers, including household consumers will use a cheaper supplier. This depends on the political choice of our partners. For our part, we are willing to carry out this project all the way through. And I think we will bring it to its logical completion.

It is easier to work with the Turks than the Europeans. Erdogan makes a decision and implements it, and here 27 countries need to come to terms. We have been chewing gum for years and nothing happens. This is sad. But the European Union is a major trade and economic partner – $300 billion is the level we are approaching. It was $400 billion before the crisis but 300 is not a small figure either. I believe that one’s own interests in the implementation of such projects, which certainly match the economic interests of Europe in general, will prevail.

Question (retranslated): I have a question for President Putin and for Mr Van der Bellen.

Tensions over the Iran nuclear deal have been mounting over the past several days. What can Russia do to save this treaty? The Kremlin said it would like to keep the treaty intact. What can be done?

A question for President Van der Bellen. Does Europe expect Russia to save this treaty?

Vladimir Putin: We have always been supportive of this treaty, and we worked on it for a long time with our partners. Truth be told, Iran played a key role in having this treaty signed. The United States, and we stood by and helped the participants of this process. I hope our assistance was effective, as it took the process to its logical conclusion, i.e., the signing of the JCPOA.

We regret the fact that the treaty is unravelling. Our partners, including the United States, are aware of our position. We advocated the preservation of these agreements. Since the treaty was signed, Iran has remained the most audited and transparent country in this respect. I personally had a conversation with the IAEA Director, who told me (he told me this in person, by the way, when we met in Sochi) that Iran is honouring all of its commitments. Well, what can I add to that?

Nevertheless, our US partners chose to withdraw from this treaty. We deplore the things that are happening now. I have repeatedly mentioned this in my conversations with our Iranian partners that, in my opinion, it would be better for Iran to remain a party to this treaty despite everything. I am about to say a non-diplomatic thing that may not sit well on the ears of our European friends. The Americans are out, the treaty is falling apart, and the European countries are unable to do anything to save it and are unable to actually work with Iran in order to compensate for the economic losses. However, should Iran ever take the first step in response and declare that it is pulling out from somewhere, the next day everyone will forget that the United States initiated the end of the treaty, and the blame for everything will be laid on Iran. International public opinion will purposefully drift in this direction. I have told the Iranians this so many times. Frankly, I do not see how withdrawing from the treaty will benefit them. I am now saying it freely and openly, because I have told them this many times during our talks. Let us see what happens next.

Russia is not a firefighting rescue crew. We cannot save things that are not fully under our control. We have played our part, and we are ready to continue to play the same positive role, but it does not depend solely on us. It depends on all our partners and all the parties, including the United States, the European countries and Iran.

Alexander Van der Bellen: I have little to add, unfortunately. The IAEA inspected Iran 13 times at least and the conclusions were that Iran was in compliance with the JCPOA. The US sanctions are entirely a US decision. This certainly does not help international relations. When a country withdraws from a treaty without sufficient cause, it undermines faith in the treaty in principle.

From the European viewpoint, the most provocative fact is, I believe, that after withdrawing from the JCPOA the US announced new sanctions against Iran and said simultaneously that all European companies continuing to cooperate with Iran would also be punished. Bur here we can put two and two together and see if it works. US relations with certain companies turn out to be more important than with Iran. The European Union still has not found an effective tool to resist this. We have been working on this for about a year. I remember President Rouhani speaking about this in Vienna. Evidently, it is very difficult just to up and support Iran. It is my impression that any additional pressure on Iran will aggravate political relations even more. We can argue about how realistic this is, but, in my opinion, if the US keeps putting pressure on Iran, it will increase the risk of a new crisis the way it happened with Iraq several years ago, and no one in Europe wants this to happen.

Question: This question isfor both you, Mr Putin, and your partner.

Observing today’s talks, one gets theimpressionthat the Russian- Austrian dialogue is much different from the general Russian-European dialogue, figures are going up and the political dialogue is much more active. In this respect, how much do European sanctions interfere with Russian-Austrian cooperation? Perhaps we could say that the hard line in Europe is giving way to Euro-pragmatism?

Vladimir Putin: Sanctions always interfere. These are illegitimate actions that sidestep the UN Security Council. Only the UN Security Council can introduce such restrictions, and everything else is illegitimate and violates current international law. Unfortunately, this is the practice today. We live under these conditions and understand that we cannot change this unilaterally either.

I have said this many times and would like to repeat that we are willing to be flexible and seek compromise, to search for solutions to all complicated issues and problems, but not at the expense of our fundamental interests, our fundamental national interests, that is all there is to it. Otherwise, we are flexible enough in our approach to all kinds of issues, including those with our European partners. 

Once again, overall, trade is growing not only with Austria but with other European countries as well. Our trade with the US increased by 25 percent last year. Actually, the absolute numbers are negligible, very small, yet it grew by 25 percent anyway; this is a good trend. Trade has grown with Europe much more so. Our trade topped 400 billion dollars before the crisis, it stood at 200 last year, whereas now it has reached 300 after increasing by almost 80 billion. This is significant growth; it is almost similar in percentage to what we have with Austria. But we just sell fuel to Austria, the price of which has now gone up, this is why the price indicators are better.

As for industrial cooperation and related issues, this is also moving ahead with these countries – with Germany, France and Italy. It is hard to say where progress is better, but in any case, we are happy with the way our relations are developing. Of course, it would have been better to have no politics-related restrictions, no politically motivated limitations. They always stand in the way, it hurts everyone.

By the way, it might hurt us to a lesser degree. The EU countries lost tens of billions of euros, and behind this are jobs, wages and the incomes of the workers employed by the European companies that could have worked in our market. I hope one day we will rebuild the entirety of our previous relations and move forward.

Alexander Van der Bellen: I think regarding the economy, the worst is behind us. As to the sanctions, you know as well as I do that there are certain political conditions, the Crimea situation and so on. It is not that easy to find a way out now.

I can agree with you, Mr President, as an economist, that the sanctions hurt everyone. Initially, Austria had a lot of difficulties with this, but we have adjusted our trade parameters in the past three or four years. Before, we sold finished products (like apples and so on), whereas now it is technological know-how, machines. The situation is unsatisfactory from an economic point of view, and I do not think anyone will argue with that.

Thank you.

May 15, 2019, Sochi