Vienna's Hofburg Palace complex gleams with all the splendor of a centuries-old former imperial residence. But the tourists milling about its cobbledstoned squares seem unaware that this week these gilded halls are playing host to guests deemed unwelcome by many.
Six Russian lawmakers and three staffers are in town for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Parliamentary Assembly's annual winter meeting — and with that, Vienna is now at the center of a political storm.
The Austrian foreign ministry says it is legally bound to issue visas to Russian parliamentarians, despite the delegates being subject to EU sanctions. In response, Ukrainian and Lithuanian delegations have refused to show up.
Ukrainian lawmakers make waves from the sidelines
A few minutes' walk away at the Ukrainian embassy, lawmaker Yevheniya Kravchuk is hosting an alternative assembly. Counterparts from Czechia and Poland pass by for hushed discussions and nationalities are on the invite list — but not Russian Duma members.
"We don't think it's moral to sit with them in the same hall, because they have to be in a tribunal, not in such respectful meetings," Kravchuk told DW.
That is a sentiment shared by Lithuanian lawmakers. Delegation head Vilija Aleknaite-Abramikiene told DW: "It's impossible to follow business as usual."
The OSCE, which has 57 member states and 11 additional partners, is one of the few remaining organizations which still counts both Ukraine and Russia among its members. Kyiv has called for Moscow's expulsion, but its current rules of procedure make that unlikely.
In a letter seen by DW dated February 1, members from more than 20 OSCE national delegations urged Austria to "prohibit" the participation of Russian delegates. But in a written statement, a foreign ministry spokesperson told DW that Austria must grant visas due to its unique status as OSCE host country. "This is not a matter of political discretion, but a legal obligation," the spokesperson said.
Kravchuk is not impressed. "Of course, we can't explain and understand this decision no matter what the Austrians say," she said. "You can always find a way not to be in the same room [as] war criminals."
Organizers insist Russians get no warm welcome
In a hastily organized press conference, the president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly sought to reassure reporters that despite the glitzy palace venue, Russians were receiving no red-carpet treatment at the talks.
"I think they deserve to be here to listen when parliamentarians, country by country, are telling them that they are supporting Ukraine," Margareta Cederfelt, the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly president, said Thursday.
Russian delegates were given the floor during the two-day meeting — but as lawmaker Vladimir Dzhabarov began speaking on Thursday, a walkout began.
"With bitterness we observe how certain members of the Parliamentary Assembly, with shameful support of its chairman, are trying to transform a once effective instrument of inter-parliamentary diplomacy into a tool of totalitarian imposition of lies against Russia and Belarus," Dzhabarov told the emptying session. "Thank you for cleaning up the atmosphere," he said as lawmakers filed out.
Russia calls its war in Ukraine a "special military operation" and claims the conflict was provoked by the West. At Friday’s session, Russian delegate Leonid Slutsky claimed he was continuing "to break through" a "wall of lies and Russophobia."
Austrian neutrality in the spotlight
The political showdown around the talks has spotlighted the stance of militarily neutral Austria. The country is now home to 50,000 displaced Ukrainians and Vienna has provided hundreds of millions of euros in humanitarian support to Kyiv, while enacting EU-wide sanctions on Moscow.
But Salzburg-based political scientist Reinhard Heinisch said this response is proving politically divisive at home, where historically there has been "a great deal of skepticism toward the West and particularly the US."
"Then the war happened, and Austria tried to realign itself," Heinish added. "The government is sort of caught between a rock and a hard place. Trying to be as supportive of EU sanctions as they can be, [whilst] at the same time, they don't want to irritate Russia more than they absolutely have to."
"Neutrality is a sacred cow, and if you ask Austrians, it's sort of what has made Austria safe, prosperous."
Purpose and value of OSCE in question
The dispute in Vienna is leading some to question the role of the OSCE in today's world. The 57-member organization was created during the Cold War as a forum for East-West dialogue. Broad in scope, the OSCE has gone on to carry out tasks such as election observation and cease-fire monitoring.
Asked whether taxpayers' money was still being well spent on the organization, German lawmaker Michael Georg Link from the business-friendly Free Democratic Party told DW: "The OSCE [Parliamentary Assembly] has the unbeatable asset of bringing together parliamentarians from over 50 countries, in support of international law, human rights and international security. These efforts are well worth the investment."
Winter session coincides with anniversary of full-scale invasion
Critics also say the timing of the winter meeting, which coincides with the one-year anniversary of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, is in bad taste. Asked about whether another date was considered, Parliamentary Assembly President Cederfelt cited rules of procedure on when meetings have to be scheduled.
For Ukrainian parliamentarian Yevheniya Kravchuk, the anniversary brings up bad memories. "Russians woke me up, woke my daughter up, with missiles and bombs."
"Most of the people [who] watch news about Ukraine and war probably think it's some sort of movie," she said.
"It's not a movie. It's our everyday life."
Maria Katamadze contributed to this article.
Edited by: Ruairi Casey and J. Wingard