Austria’s government came crashing down with a bang not a whimper this past weekend following one of the worst political scandals in the country’s recent history. It all started Friday evening when a 2-year-old video surfaced in the German media showing Austria’s vice chancellor and the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, offering government contracts and a stake in Austria’s most important tabloid, the Krone Zeitung, to a woman he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.
The woman turned out to be a decoy, and the offer that Strache made during a night of heavy drinking in Ibiza, the far-right politician’s favorite Mediterranean holiday resort, a few weeks ahead of the Austrian parliamentary elections in October 2017, was secretly filmed. While it is still unclear who was behind the video, its publication was tantamount to the unleashing of a political tsunami in Austria.
Strache, whose party is the junior partner in a coalition government with the center-right Austrian People’s Party, known as ÖVP, resigned the day after the video was released, along with fellow party member Johann Gudenus, who was deputy mayor of Vienna at the time and acted as Russian translator on the boozy night.
That same day, 32-year-old Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who was swept into office in December 2017 by moving the conservative ÖVP to the right and embracing a form of light populism, announced snap elections and an end to the center-right/far-right government he has been leading. Austrians will now head to the polls in September. The chancellor in turn will face a parliamentary vote of no confidence next week, which could force him to resign. Kurz’s partnership with the far right lasted just 18 months. Kurz, who has been hailed as a “rock star” by U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell and who was received by U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House earlier this year, is now slated to become the far right’s new boogeyman.
He probably shouldn’t have been surprised. The Freedom Party, known as FPÖ, has been in power four times since 1983, and during each instance, the government collapsed prematurely because of infighting or scandals. But what makes the recent crisis especially intriguing is that what ultimately triggered it was not the FPÖ’s anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and general xenophobic rhetoric, nor an alleged scandal involving Austria’s domestic intelligence agency, nor verbal attacks by the party against the Austrian Broadcasting Corp., but rather the party leader’s affinity to Russia, which was deliberately exploited by the actors behind the 2017 video. This is no coincidence: Austria is one of Russia’s closest friends in Europe.
While Austria, as part of Nazi Germany, participated in the merciless invasion of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, it was largely the legacy of that conflict that helped determine the benign trajectory of Austro-Russian relations in recent decades. Austria was the only country in Europe from which the Soviet Union withdrew its soldiers, following a 10-year occupation, on the condition that it would become a neutral country in conflicts between the Soviet Union and the West, to which Vienna complied by passing the Constitutional Law on the Neutrality of Austria in 1955. It was this neutrality law that permitted close contacts of Austrian elites with their counterparts in Moscow during the Cold War years and enabled Austrian businesses to enter the Russian market quickly following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Neutrality has continued to be official policy since the end of the Cold War and remains deeply popular among Austrians as one of the foundational myths of the Second Austrian Republic. However, skeptics have persistently argued that it is outdated and opportunistic. “Neutrality is a fig leaf for being pro-Russian,” Gustav C. Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me in an interview. “Neutrality has lost any practical meaning after the end of the Cold War and particularly after Austria joined the European Union.” Today, “it is a catchword to describe anti-American resentments and the wish for proximity to Russia.”
The FPÖ may be more pro-Russian than other Austrian parties, but it’s not entirely unique. An exceptionally high number of Austrian politicians has gone on to work for Russian state-owned or privately owned enterprises with close ties to the Kremlin after the end of their political careers. For example, Former Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (of ÖVP) is a member of the board of directors of MTS, Russia’s largest mobile operator; former Chancellor Christian Kern (of the Social Democratic Party, known as SPÖ) is slated to join the board of Russian Railways; former Minister of Finance Hans Jörg Schelling (of ÖVP) is an adviser to Gazprom.
Senior Austrian politicians also have repeatedly expressed their desire to see the EU sanctions enacted following Moscow’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 lifted. While there are some geostrategic reasons for that—85 percent of Austria’s natural gas demand is met by Russia—many of these politicians are also known to have private business interests in Russia. For example, the former president of the influential Austrian Economic Chamber, Christoph Leitl, is known to have at one time owned shares at two Russian companies worth more than $83 million.
Austria was also the first EU country to welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin to an official state visit after the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in 2014, during which he was also warmly received by Leitl. Notably, Austria also did not join other Western countries in expelling Russian diplomats following Russia’s alleged poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in England last year. 2018 also saw Putin attend the wedding of Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl. During her own wedding, Kneissl kneeled in front of the Russian president—for many a symbol of Austria’s obsequious relationship with the Kremlin.
Still, the FPÖ’s support for Russia stands out, with Johann Gudenus, an aristocrat whose father was a FPÖ politician–turned–convicted Holocaust denier, acting as the Kremlin’s biggest cheerleader in Austrian politics—at least until last Friday. Gudenus has endorsed the Russian occupation of Crimea, praised the Russian-installed Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, railed against the EU (a “lobby for homosexuals,” according to a speech he gave in Moscow in 2014) and the United States, and condemned Western pluralism and liberalism, all of which brought him the attention of the Kremlin. Gudenus was also instrumental in the FPÖ concluding a “partnership treaty” with Putin’s United Russia party in December 2016. Gudenus and FPÖ’s current front-runner in the upcoming EU Parliament elections, Harald Vilimsky, were also suspected by Austria’s domestic intelligence agency to be Russian influence agents, according to media reports. (Indeed, there is some speculation that a raid ordered by the FPÖ interior minister on Feb. 18 against the anti-extremism unit of the domestic intelligence division was to retrieve copies of the Ibiza video.)
At first glance, it’s bewildering that a party founded by former members of the Nazi Party would ally itself with the latter’s archenemy: Russia. And Strache, in 1992, still publicly advocated the removal of a Soviet victory monument in Vienna. In the past, FPÖ politicians have also been among the first to point out the multiple war crimes committed by the Soviets, including the endemic rape of Austrian women, during the last weeks of the Second World War in Austria.
However, once Strache assumed the party’s leadership in 2005, a gradual rapprochement took place. This started when he was approached by close confidant of Putin’s, according to recent reporting by the Süddeutsche Zeitung, and together they devised a plan “to strategically work together” in the future. This was the result of a Russian reassessment of European far-right parties in general, following the so-called color revolutions of the 2000s. The Kremlin came to see these parties as useful tools to help undermine the European Union, NATO, economic liberalism, and democratic pluralism, all of which, in the wake of these pro-Western uprisings, were seen as threats to Russian national interests. Russia, in turn, was gradually seen as a useful ally in the FPÖ’s fight against the “Islamization” of Austria and Western liberalism in general. A December 2013 strategy paper by a Russian think tank with close ties to the Kremlin touted the idea of Putin “as a leader of a new global conservativism.”
It should be noted that not all FPÖ politicians are pro-Russian. For example, during a recent visit to the U.S., Austrian Defense Minister Mario Kunasek emphasized his fondness of the United States and called the U.S. a stabilizing factor in Europe. The incumbent FPÖ Interior Minister Herbert Kickl has also been skeptical of his party’s pro-Russian drift.
But close contacts between the FPÖ and Russian officials have reportedly intensified in recent years. According to Gressel, while other members of the Austrian political elite were cultivated by the Russian diplomatic service or state-owned enterprises, FPÖ politicians tended to be targeted by the intelligence services or private actors like Konstantin Malofeev, the ultra-orthodox right-wing oligarch with close ties to the Kremlin. “Hence their pro-Russianness has a much more radical tone,” he said. Notably, many of these Russian interactions were ignored or not detected by Austrian counterintelligence branches.
Others have begun to notice, however. The FPÖ’s close ties with Russia led several Western intelligence agencies to stop sharing intelligence with Austria, as the party controlled all of the country’s three intelligence agencies. As I have reported for Kleine Zeitung, this policy expanded earlier this year to include U.S. military intelligence.
The far right in Austria is not alone in its close ties to Russia. Far-right populist parties in France, Italy, Germany, and in other European countries are all cooperating with the Kremlin in one way or the other. This often includes funding from Russian sources for their political campaigns. Russia is also attempting to meddle in the upcoming EU Parliament elections by spreading disinformation. To date, no Russian funding of the FPÖ has been publicly revealed, although a senior ÖVP politician told me in November that the FPÖ has indeed received money from Russian sources in the past. A recent report by Profil identified a possible intermediary for some of these transactions. It should be noted that Austria lacks rigidly enforced campaign finance laws and there are various indicators that neither the SPÖ nor ÖVP want to dig too deeply into it, as it would also reveal in detail how their political campaigns are financed.
May will likely mark the zenith of Russian influence in Austria. With the FPÖ purged of its most pro-Russian politician and the entire party ousted from government this week, as a result of a sting operation that played to Austrian politicians’ allure to Russian power, Russian ties to all the major parties and political institutions are bound to be more closely scrutinized. Perhaps a small sign of the changing political wind in Vienna is that both the Austrian foreign and defense ministries pulled out of an Austro-Russian security conference on Tuesday.
The Ibiza video showing Austrian politicians attempting to undermine Austrian democracy should be a wake-up call for Austria’s political elite to reevaluate its relationship with Moscow and Russian money. To paraphrase the disgraced former vice chancellor: “Jetzt erst recht!” (“Now, above all.”)