BERLIN — It was the wedding event of the Austrian summer, and all the stars of the country’s political universe were there. Plus a foreign guest who brought with him a bouquet of yellow flowers, a troupe of singing Cossacks and a heap of controversy.
When Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl tied the knot at a vineyard in the hills of southern Austria on Saturday afternoon, Russian President Vladimir Putin was on hand to give his blessing.
He stayed for a little over an hour and briefly danced with the bride; he in a dark-blue suit, she in a cream-and-white dirndl, the region’s traditional dress. His gift to the newlyweds was a performance by a deep-voiced choir outfitted in vivid red and flown in from Russia just for the occasion.
The country’s Foreign Ministry said the ceremony was private, with just 100 attendees. But with Putin among them, the personal event took on a very public meaning for Europe while generating a backlash in Austria.
Austria has for decades been neutral in the struggle between East and West, maintaining strong ties with both Russia and with its allies in the European Union, not to mention the United States.
But the small Alpine country of 9 million has pivoted toward Moscow since the end of last year, when a government coalition of the center-right People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party took office. The latter in 2016 signed a cooperation pact with Putin’s United Russia Party.
The 53-year-old Kneissl, an academic and journalist before taking office in December, is officially independent. But she was selected for her post by the Freedom Party.
Like the party, she opposes Europe’s sanctions against Russia. When other E.U. nations expelled Russian diplomats in March in retaliation for the poisoning of a former Russian double agent on British soil, Austria pointedly declined to take part. As Putin and President Trump planned their summit this summer, the Kremlin initially favored Vienna as the venue before Helsinki won out.
Although Kneissl is not thought to be personally close to Putin, she invited him to her wedding when he visited Vienna in June. The Kremlin announced he had accepted the invitation last week. Kneissl married Wolfgang Meilinger, an entrepreneur.
The wedding gave Putin a highly symbolic platform to demonstrate his deepening ties with political leaders in Europe. Putin has long regarded the E.U. as an adversary, and Russia has sought to sow division on the continent. That effort has received a boost in recent years by the electoral success of populist parties, many of which share Moscow’s contempt for Brussels.
The timing is particularly apt for Putin given that Austria currently holds the rotating E.U. presidency.
In addition to Putin, the two most powerful figures in Austria — Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, who leads the Freedom Party — also attended Saturday’s wedding. Kurz has called for Austria to be “a bridge builder” between Russia and the West.
But Putin’s presence was criticized by opposition lawmakers in Austria.
“How is Austria’s presidency of the European Union meant to live up to the government’s own claims of building bridges and being an honest broker when Austria’s foreign minister and chancellor are so obviously on one side?” asked Andreas Schieder, a lawmaker from the center-left Social Democrats.
That view was echoed in Ukraine, where Russia has used military force to annex territory — Crimea — and to support separatists attempting to cleave off even more of the country.
“If you invite Vladimir Putin to your wedding, you are not neutral anymore,” tweeted Ukraine’s foreign affairs committee chair, Hanna Hopko. “From now on, Austria can’t be a mediator in Ukraine. Period.”
A Freedom Party lawmaker, Johann Gudenus, said Kneissl should be able to invite whomever she wants to her wedding, and he accused critics of trying to interfere in her private life.
Putin’s attendance at the wedding overshadowed his visit later on Saturday to Germany, where he met with Chancellor Angela Merkel for the second time in the past three months.
At Merkel’s countryside residence Meseberg, outside Berlin, the leaders were expected to focus on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. No major decisions were expected, but the two have stepped up their engagement as ties with the United States have frayed.
“I am of the opinion that controversial issues can only be addressed in dialogue and through dialogue,” Merkel said in a brief statement before the talks. The leaders were not expected to speak publicly after the meeting.
Luisa Beck contributed to this report.