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 today, 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.

But the small Alpine country of nine million has pivoted towards to Moscow since the end of last year, when a government coalition of the centre-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 EU 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 US President Donald Trump planned their summit this summer, the Kremlin initially favoured Vienna as the venue before Helsinki won out.

Although Kneissl is not believed 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 this 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 EU 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 EU 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 the wedding. Kurz has called for Austria to be "a bridge builder" between Russia and the West.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk during their meeting at the government guest house Meseberg in Gransee near Berlin. Photo / AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk during their meeting at the government guest house Meseberg in Gransee near Berlin. Photo / AP

But Putin's presence was criticised 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 centre-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 accused critics of trying to interfere in her private life.

Putin's attendance at the wedding overshadowed his visit later to Germany, where he met Chancellor Angela Merkel for the second time in the past three months.

In the talks,at Merkel's countryside residence Meseberg, outside Berlin, the pair was 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 US have frayed.

"I am of the opinion that controversial issues can only be addressed in dialogue and through dialogue," Merkel said before the talks.