Austria’s foreign minister was at the centre of a storm of criticism on Tuesday after making a deep curtsey to Russian leader Vladimir Putin at her wedding, with critics blaming her for a naive gesture that would hurt her country’s reputation.
The Kremlin leader, while not known to be a particularly close friend of the minister, Karin Kneissl, was the star guest at her wedding in an Austrian village at the weekend.
Video coverage showed Kneissl ending a waltz with Putin with a deep curtsey, a gesture that some Austrian media said would hand the Kremlin propaganda to the detriment of Austria for years to come.
“Kneissl’s kneeling in front of Putin is a disgrace,” the daily Der Standard said, adding: “The foreign minister has lost all credibility by the way she handled Vladimir Putin.”
Kneissl, 53, a polyglot Middle East expert without political affiliation, was appointed to her job by the far-right Freedom Party which has a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia Party.
Her critics zeroed in on the fact that Austria is currently holding the presidency of the European Union at a time of increasing tensions between the bloc and Russia over a range of issues.
Austria did not follow other members of the EU this year in expelling Russian diplomats after Britain accused the Kremlin of involvement in the use of a nerve agent against a former Russian spy and his daughter in England – a charge Moscow denies.
For students of etiquette, there was much debate over whether Kneissl had curtseyed or whether she had bowed to the Kremlin leader at the end of their short waltz together.
A formal curtsey is a major element of Viennese ballroom etiquette, said Roman Svabek, owner of the dancing school that for the past ten years has organised the famous Vienna Opera Ball.
Performing the so-called “compliment” at the end of the dance is intended to express the respect due to the person addressed, Svabek said.
The tradition dates back to the times of the Vienna congress, when international diplomats were sent to the balls in the Austrian Empire’s capital to negotiate secret back-room deals, according to Svabek.
“It was a mixture of a curtsey and a bow,” Svabek told Reuters on Tuesday, commenting on Kneissl’s gesture. “The lady typically curtsies, keeping her eyes up. A gentleman bows with his eyes cast down.”
Whether it was a bow or a curtsey, though, cut little ice with sections of the Austrian media.
Enabling Kremlin propaganda “to gleefully spread pictures where the Austrian representative is going down on her knees in front of Putin” was a big mistake that will dog Austria for a long time, commented the daily Kleine Zeitung.
“Her (Kneissl’s) overly deep curtsey to Vladimir Putin … has become a political issue,” said tabloid Oe24 on Tuesday.
“If she (Kneissl) had thought politically, she would not have invited him (Putin) to such a private event,” former Czech Foreign Minister and veteran East-West diplomat Karel Schwarzenberg was quoted as saying by Der Standard.
“But he immediately thought politically and accepted the invitation, because it allowed him to demonstrate normality.”