A video address by Ukrainian President Zelensky to the Austrian parliament descended into chaos on Thursday as members of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) walked out of the chamber in protest.
More than 20 FPÖ lawmakers used the opportunity to reassert their position of neutrality regarding the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, with some leaving placards at their empty desks that read “space for neutrality” and “space for peace.”
The FPÖ had already announced its protest action in advance, and on Thursday morning protesters gathered outside the parliament building, some even waving Russian flags. According to the party, the Ukrainian president’s speech to parliament violated Austria’s principle of military neutrality, which is why the country has only expressed its solidarity with Ukraine politically, and not with the provision of arms.
Perpetual neutrality, enshrined in the country’s 1955 constitution, also means that the country cannot join military alliances, take part in wars or station foreign troops on its territory.
Herbert Kickl, leader of the FPÖ, accused other political factions of having “resorted to dangerous and undifferentiated rhetoric to proclaim the need for a final victory.”
He expressed his regret that the FPÖ is the only party that remains serious about perpetual neutrality and thus standing up for peace. However, the Austrian conservatives were not the only faction that appeared to be lukewarm to President Zelensky’s address, with around half of Social Democrat Party (SPÖ) MPs also staying away from the chamber during his speech.
According to the OE24 portal, 18 of the 40 SPÖ MPs were absent. The leader of the parliamentary group, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, was herself absent from the session, citing illness. It was also claimed that it was not an official parliamentary session, just an event organized by the speaker, Wolfgang Sobotka.
The sight of the empty SPÖ benches sparked controversy within the party, with some long-time Social Democrat politicians demanding an immediate explanation for the absence. The news outlet also raised the question of whether the absence of left-wing MPs at Zelensky’s speech could be considered a political statement. It noted in the article that the SPÖ has not yet been accused of being pro-Kremlin, but this could change quickly with the absence of half of the MPs.
“When we turn to you for support, we are asking you to protect human lives. Ukraine wants to live in security, peace and freedom,” President Zelensky told Austrian lawmakers, revealing that an area of Ukraine some 174 square kilometers in size, twice that of Austria, is now littered with mines.
The Austrian state has pledged around €129 million in financial and humanitarian support to Kyiv and has taken in nearly 94,000 Ukrainian refugees.