Austrian minister says Russia will remain important for Europe


FILE PHOTO-Austria's foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg speaks during an interview with Reuters in Vienna, Austria, March 16, 2023. REUTERS/Lisa Leutner

VIENNA (Reuters) - Russia will always remain important for Europe, Austria's foreign minister said, saying that to think otherwise was delusional.

Alexander Schallenberg also defended the country's second-biggest bank, Raiffeisen Bank International, saying it was unreasonable to single out the lender for doing business in Russia while so many other Western firms did the same.

"To think that there won't be Russia anymore and we can decouple in all areas is delusional," Schallenberg told Reuters, adding that while Austria would loosen ties this "can't happen overnight".

"Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky remain a part of European culture, whether we like it or not. It will continue to be our biggest neighbour. It will stay the second largest nuclear power in the world."

Austria, which has modelled itself as a bridge between east and west, turning its capital of Vienna into a magnet for Russian money, is also part of a wider Western alliance that has sanctioned Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

Austria still imports Russian gas although it is seeking to reduce it over the coming years.

Some Austrian officials, however, harbour hopes for a quick conclusion to the war and a return to more normal relations with Russia, people familiar with the matter said.

Schallenberg made his comments after the U.S. sanctions authority launched an inquiry earlier this year into Raiffeisen over its business related to Russia, increasing scrutiny of the Austrian lender.

Raiffeisen is deeply embedded in Russia and is one of the only two foreign banks on the Russian central bank's list of 13 systemic institutions, underscoring its importance to Russia's economy, which is grappling with sweeping Western sanctions.

A Russian scheme to grant loan payment holidays to troops fighting in Ukraine, which Raiffeisen participated in, also triggered sharp criticism by investors.

Schallenberg said it was for Austria to enforce sanctions and pointed the finger at other Western banks doing business in Russia. "Austrian companies have to stick to Austrian rules, part of which are the European Union sanctions."

"Let's get real," he said. "91% of Western companies are still in Russia and doing what is sensible: waiting, containment, ring fencing."

"There are enough American banks, one with the name Bank of America, present in Russia," said Schallenberg. "The list is a 'who's who' of the Western banking world."

A spokesperson for Bank of America said: "Our activities are focused on compliance with all sanctions."

Schallenberg said he favoured enforcement of existing European sanctions over introducing further measures.

"It is a very blunt weapon," he said. "We've had massive sanctions packages. Give them time to work."

(Writing by John O'Donnell; Editing by Alison Williams)

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