Austria’s Vice Chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, Resigns After Video Sting – Smart Media Magazine

Austria’s Vice Chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, Resigns After Video Sting

BERLIN — Austria’s far-right vice chancellor resigned on Saturday after a secretly filmed video showed him promising government contracts to a woman claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch in return for campaign finance, raising questions about whether Russia has a direct line to a government in the heart of Europe.

The video was the worst in a series of missteps that have threatened the stability of Austria’s governing coalition. It has also raised concerns about whether Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party has been helping Chancellor Sebastian Kurz govern with an active agenda to undermine liberal democracy in the country.

The latest Austrian scandal comes at a big political moment in the European Union. Across the Continent, far-right, populist leaders are campaigning hard before next week’s elections for the European Parliament and seem poised to increase their share in the chamber. Many of Europe’s populists share the agenda of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia: fragmenting the Continent’s political landscape and weakening the European establishment’s power in Brussels.

Not long ago, these far-right parties were on the fringes of European politics, but like Austria’s Freedom Party, several are now part of coalition governments. Some populist leaders, particularly in the Scandinavian countries and Poland, are wary of Russia, but others are outspoken in their desire for closer ties to the Kremlin.

The footage shows Mr. Strache and a Russian-speaking Freedom Party official smoking and drinking while talking to a woman who claims to be the niece of a Russian oligarch. When she offers to support the Freedom Party and invest 250 million euros, around $280 million, in Austria, Mr. Strache offers her road-building contracts in the country in return.

After resigning as vice chancellor and leader of the Freedom Party on Saturday, Mr. Strache played down his comments as “typical alcohol-fueled macho behavior” with which he had tried to impress the “attractive host.”

“I behaved boastfully like a teenager,” he said at a news conference in Vienna on Saturday.

But the video exposed an agenda that the Freedom Party had been actively pursuing — raising questions about the inroads Russia may have made in the government.

Vienna, some observers say, may be back at the center of a battle of ideas between liberal Western democrats and populist forces allied with Mr. Putin, who as a K.G.B. spy based in Communist Germany would go to Austria to ski.

“Vienna plays a key role for Putin and for the far right,” said Peter Pilz, an independent Austrian lawmaker. “Far-right parties all over Europe have become a sort of fifth column for Russia. In Austria, that fifth column has been in government.”

Mr. Strache first met Mr. Putin in May 2007. In 2014, at least two Freedom Party members took part as election observers during the Russian referendum after the annexation of Crimea. Then in 2016, seven months before the meeting in Ibiza took place, Mr. Strache traveled to Moscow to sign a formal cooperation agreement between the Freedom Party and Mr. Putin’s United Russia party.

Last August, Austria’s foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, who is backed by the Freedom Party, even invited Mr. Putin to her wedding. And foreign intelligence services have stopped sharing sensitive information with Austria for fear that it may leak to Moscow.

But Chancellor Kurz has said that the links between the Freedom Party and Russia are overstated.

“Regarding the close contacts between Russia and the Freedom Party, I can only smile,” he said in an interview with The New York Times last month. “Every Western foreign minister has more contact with senior Russian officials in one year than the Freedom Party in its entire history.”

For weeks, opposition parties have called on Mr. Kurz to end his controversial coalition with Freedom Party, whose well-documented links to far-right extremists and to Russia have increasingly worried allies at home and abroad. The chancellor, who is expected to make a public statement later on Saturday, has so far resisted.

Mr. Kurz led his conservative Austrian People’s Party to victory in elections in 2017 by giving a youthful repackaging to much of the agenda of the Freedom Party, which he then invited into a coalition government. He still depends on their support, but some analysts say the revelations in the video may make new elections inevitable.

At one point, according to the footage, Mr. Strache compared journalists to prostitutes. He also said he would like Austria’s news media landscape to resemble that of neighboring Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban turned the country’s public media into a pro-government propaganda machine while allies have gradually bought up swathes of the private media sector.

“We want to build a media landscape like Orban did,” Mr. Strache says in the video, floating the idea of partly privatizing Austria’s public broadcaster and encouraging a suggestion by his Russian counterpart to take over Austria’s most influential tabloid.

“If she takes over the Krone newspaper three weeks before election and brings us to spot number one, then we can talk about anything,” Mr. Strache says.

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