It may not come as a surprise that Russia and Cyprus are Belarus’ largest foreign investors, but did you know that Austria comes third? In 2020, Austrian companies made a foreign direct investment of 383 million euros in Belarus, according to the Austrian National Bank
. Relations between Vienna and Minsk are traditionally close, and in 2019, Austria even became the first EU country to invite Lukashenko over for a visit
after sanctions were lifted.
On occasions like this, business and political circles repeat the romantic mantra that Austria can be “a bridge between the East and West,” a relationship that can bring a lot of good to both countries. Or: “Business is business,” and “politics is politics.”
Following the events in Belarus, we clearly see that this romance has turned out to be rather toxic. Instead of exporting democracy to Belarus, Austrian businesses have helped stabilize the regime. When Lukashenko blocked the internet for protesters last summer, it was A1 Belarus, a subsidiary of the partially state-owned Austrian Telekom, that pulled the trigger for him. And as Belarusian jails filled up with political prisoners, Raiffeisen, one of Austria’s largest banks, helped Belarus issue a 1,4 billion Eurobond
. Money that allowed Lukashenko to finance his repressive apparatus.
“Let others wage war: thou, happy Austria, do business,” could be a saying based on Habsburg traditions. Traditionally, Austrian politicians have no reservations against dictators or autocrats. Shortly after the war in Donbas started in 2014, then- Austrian president Heinz Fischer and the president of Austrian Economic Chamber Christoph Leitl invited Vladimir Putin to Vienna, where the Russian president joked about “good dictatorships.”
And even now, after the whole world was following the hijacking of a plane and the tortured confessions of a dissident, the Austrian business chamber insisted to “keep in touch with difficult partners.” No surprise, Austria, – the most pro-Lukashenko-country
within the EU – is not a big fan of sanctions. When problems come up, beautiful words about “bridges” quickly melt away like the snow in the Tyrolean alps in the spring.
Belarus should be a lesson not only for Austrians, but politicians and entrepreneurs around the globe: There cannot be a “business is business” and “politics is politics” approach with dictatorial regimes. And it’s not simply about human rights, but basic risk calculation, too. A1 Belarus and Raiffeisen lost a lot of their reputation and credibility in Belarus. In authoritarian regimes, politics and business always go hand in hand.