Austria: Far-right scandal topples government
The head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party was willing to sell out his country to the Russians, said Thomas Götz in the Kleine Zeitung (Austria). A damning video released last week by two German news outlets shows party leader Heinz-Christian Strache plotting with a woman who claimed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin. Recorded in a villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza three months before the 2017 Austrian elections—a vote that resulted in a coalition government of the center-right People’s Party and the anti-immigrant Freedom Party—the footage shows Strache promising to award lucrative public contracts to the woman if she bought the Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s largest tabloid, and used it to support his election campaign. Strache, who went on to become Austrian vice chancellor, mentions his “strategic collaboration” with Putin and mulls ways the Russians could donate to his party secretly. Nothing ever came of the meeting—probably because it was an apparent sting, set up by unknown actors—but Strache has been revealed as a man of brazen corruption on a level “intolerable even in banana republics.”
Strache quickly announced his resignation, said Martin Kotynek in Der Standard (Austria), and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called new elections. For the center-right Kurz, the scandal presented the perfect “opportunity to get rid of a problematic partner.” His alliance with the Freedom Party has been an embarrassment abroad, yet Kurz’s approval ratings at home remain excellent. Already, he is telling voters that his is the only party with enough popular support to form a viable government—never mind that it was Kurz “who brought the far right into the highest office” and helped create this mess. We don’t know who made the video or why it leaked now, said Matthew Karnitschnig in Politico.eu (Belgium), but its impact could be felt “beyond Austria’s border.” For years, far-right parties have faced accusations of cooperating behind the scenes with Moscow. While the Freedom Party has a formal tie to Putin’s United Russia party, it “has repeatedly denied working to further Russian interests in Austria.” Now that it’s been outed as willing to do just that, other Russia-friendly parties—notably France’s National Rally and Italy’s League—suddenly look suspect.
Founded by ex-Nazis and stuffed with anti-Semites, the Freedom Party should never have been in government, said Edward Lucas in The Times (U.K.). Just months after the party got control of the Interior Ministry, it sent police to raid the offices of Austria’s domestic intelligence service, netting material about foreign spy operations as well as investigations into the Austrian far right and its ties to Russian mobsters. U.S. and British intelligence services were furious, believing “that their sources and methods might now be in the hands of their Russian adversary,” and they cut Austria off from intelligence sharing. The lesson for centrist parties in other countries mulling partnerships with the far-rights is clear: “Bringing dodgy parties into government does not make them less dodgy. It only makes the government dodgier.” ■