| VIENNA, July 29
VIENNA, July 29 Austrian businesses would back
tougher economic sanctions against Russia should Europe go down
that path, even though such measures will likely be
counterproductive, the head of the country's Chamber of Commerce
said on Tuesday.
Christoph Leitl, one of Austria's most vocal opponents of
levelling tough sanctions against Moscow over its role in
Ukraine's crisis, told Reuters he could not estimate the
economic impact of stepped-up economic pressure on Russia.
"As (sanctions) are now, we expect exports to fall around 20
percent this year versus last year and in tourism the collapse
in Russian guests is already very strikingly tangible," he said
in a telephone interview.
Neutral Austria has walked a fine line between showing
solidarity with European Union partners and calling for dialogue
with Russia, whose President Vladimir Putin got a warm welcome
when he visited Vienna last month.
"I am still against sanctions, but if the politicians decide
otherwise then of course one is bound to this," Leitl said,
noting Austria's business would go along with whatever the
United Nations, the EU or national law mandates.
He was speaking after Germany's main business lobby group
took a similar line and as EU diplomats met to thrash out the
bloc's first broad economic sanctions on Russia.
Leitl noted that Austrian companies - which have invested
more than 8.6 billion euros ($11.5 billion) in Russia - have to
judge whether to keep investing given the political uncertainty,
but dismissed the idea that the crisis could torpedo plans to
bring the South Stream Russian gas pipeline to Austria.
The chief executives of Russia's Gazprom and
Austria's OMV last month sealed a deal to build a
branch of South Stream to Austria, a defender of the project
despite opposition from the European Commission.
"South Stream is a long-term project. In my view this crisis
will occupy us perhaps for a few months but South Stream is a
project over many years," Leitl said.
He said he wanted to neither dramatise nor play down the
potential impact of sanctions on Russia, which imports mostly
machinery, pharmaceuticals and iron and steel products from
Austria. Energy accounts for 85 percent of trade the other way.
More than 513,000 Russian tourists visited Austria last
year, up nearly 8 percent from 2012. Russia is Austria's
third-biggest non-EU trading partner, after the United States
and Switzerland, but exports to Russia fell nearly 12 percent to
just over 1 billion euros in the first four months of this year.
Austrian companies with large Russia exposure include lender
Raiffeisen Bank International (RBI) and property group
RBI's CEO was quoted saying in a newspaper interview Russia
was an important market but the bank would wait to see how the
situation develops. Immofinanz has said in the past the impact
of the Ukraine crisis was uncertain.
($1 = 0.7457 Euros)
(Editing by David Holmes)