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Andrzej Kohut  9 lipca 2019

Tape scandal, Vienna-style. Russians, intelligence wars, and social democrat adviser

Andrzej Kohut  9 lipca 2019
przeczytanie zajmie 7 min

For some, this was the ideal coalition. An example of how to work with radical parties, involving them in governing a state. For others – a culpable attempt at legitimizing attitudes that should remain on the margins. Perhaps even a threat to Europe’s security. After nearly 17 months, the alliance between the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) has come to an end. The reason is the recording released by two German newspapers, in which Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the FPÖ, has a discrediting conversation with a woman who introduces herself as the niece of an oligarch from Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

A night in Ibiza

It was July 2017, a few months before the parliamentary elections in Austria – the ones that brought the FPÖ participation in a coalition government. Strache and his close associate Johann Gudenus and his wife met with a Russian woman in her villa in Ibiza. The lady introduced herself as Alyona Makarova, the niece of oligarch Igor Makarov. That was enough for Austrian politicians. They had a few hours of conversation with her, instilled with alcohol, full of controversial topics.

Among other things, Strache suggested that the alleged Makarova could aid the FPÖ with a significant donation, cleverly bypassing legal regulations and formally transferring it to a non-profit organization. He explained that he receives such support from many donors, including a weapons manufacturer Gaston Glock (the latter denied this firmly after the recording was released). There was also a suggestion that the alleged Makarova could buy the majority stake in one of the tabloids, Kronen Zeitung, and provide the FPÖ with media support as well.

„If she takes over Krone three weeks before the elections and puts us in the spotlight, everything is possible” – the party leader explained. Strache predicted that after firing several journalists, the rest should fall in line with the newspaper, because „journalists are the world’s biggest whores”.

Strache also expressed the opinion that he would like to make the media landscape in Austria more like that of Hungary under Orban. He further persuaded the alleged oligarch’s niece that she should set up a construction company whom his party – if it came to power – could hand over contracts currently operated by Austrian Strabag.

The coalition collapsed like a house of cards

The texts revealing the details of this conversation and fragments of the video recording were released on May 17 by two German newspapers: Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung. They did not state where the records came from but declared that the sources were known to them. The publication has triggered a rapid avalanche of events.

Strache resigned. At the conference, he argued that his words in Ibiza should not be taken seriously, as he was under the influence of alcohol, and the goal was to impress an attractive woman. Not much later, Johann Gudenus also announced his resignation from political office. Igor Makarov stated that he did not know the identity of his alleged niece and would like to highlight that he is an only child.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that enough is enough and it is time to end the coalition with the Freedom Party of Austria. He also announced early elections. This way, in less than two days, the Austrian political scene capsized. It is not yet known what political consequences this scandal will bring. The first polls after releasing the tapes show a few percent decrease in support for the FPÖ, and an increase for Chancellor Kurz’s party, strengthening it in its leading position. However, Kurz still lacks a lot of votes to achieve independent government.

An alternative to cooperating with libertarians could be a return to the Great Coalition, the most-repeated conservative alliance in the history of the country, with the socialists of the SPÖ. However, Kurz repeatedly declared that this is out of the question. Another question remains unanswered: who can be the brains behind the scandal?

Intelligence? But whose?

Nearly two years have passed since the recorded conversation. The recording was released on the eve of the elections to the European Parliament. Preparing a professional recording, as well as arranging the alleged niece of the oligarch, could suggest secret service activity.

For several years now, we have been observing the increased activity of Russians trying to disrupt the electoral process in individual countries, support a specific candidate or act to destabilize the political system. All these elements can be observed while studying Russian interference in the US presidential election of 2016. Perhaps this time, too, there was such an attempt in one of the West European countries?

One fact may contradict this: the discredited FPÖ is an openly pro-Russian party, formally cooperating with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia. The latter was also present at the wedding of Karin Kneissel, the Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, proposed by the FPÖ – even though not a party member. A recording of them waltzing together went around the Internet.

If the Russians were indeed looking for a possibility to strike at one of the European governments, would they really choose to attack a party that is so openly friendly towards them? Would the weakening of support for a pro-Russian and Eurosceptic party really be in the Kremlin’s best interest?

That is why there are also speculations indicating foul play by the intelligence services of Western countries.  After entering the coalition with Kurz’s ÖVP, the libertarian politicians filled several key ministries, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs. There, they quickly became interested in information regarding the far right that had been collected for years by a special unit of internal intelligence. However, when the new minister asked for access to documents, he was refused. The unit management did not want to give resources collected in cooperation with other countries’ intelligence services into the hands of a representative of a radical right-wing party with pro-Russian ties. This ended with an intervention of armed policemen who forcibly took away the information desired by the new minister. This, however, had its consequences.

The intelligence services of the Western European countries and the USA began to partially cut off the Austrians from sensitive information they had so far been sharing. The concern that said information might be used by the far right, and perhaps even the Russians, turned out to be too big.

Perhaps, then, it should be assumed that one of these countries decided to detonate a pre-election bomb to protect its own information, and possibly to also weaken eurosceptic forces before the elections. Accusations of close ties with Russia touch upon many of the right-wing eurosceptic parties across the EU, so in theory, it could result in the weakening of similar parties in other countries. Sowing doubts among voters regarding the purity of intentions in these parties could be an additional benefit for whoever led to the scandal’s disclosure.

Bad adviser

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has other suspicions. “These methods are similar to those used by Tal Silberstein, social democratic adviser in the election campaign in 2017. I believe that he can be the brains behind all this” – he says in an interview given to the newspaper „Bild”.

Silberstein was the dark phantom of Austrian elections from two years ago. He was the one who led the campaign aimed at preventing Kurz’s success. Silberstein was preparing materials suggesting that today’s prime minister is lying regarding his stance in the refugees’ crisis. He also exposed Kurz’s alleged connections with Jewish billionaires from the USA and with George Soros.

All this was to discredit Kurz in the eyes of right-wing voters. However, when the case came to light, it harmed social democrats the most – it was named as one of the reasons for their defeat in the elections.

Silberstein himself was no longer involved in the campaign at that point and was defending himself against several allegations of financial crimes pressed by the Israeli justice system.

The timing of the recording compromising the leading FPÖ politicians might indicate that it happened in the context of the 2017 parliamentary elections.  It is possible that Silberstein, removed from the campaign due to legal issues, did not manage to use the prepared material. On the other hand, other activities that he undertook during this campaign did not stand in such gross conflict with the law. Nor did they require such complex and challenging preparations. Even if it turned out that he was in charge of preparing and recording this conversation, the question still remains where the recording has been for the last two years and who decided that the time has come to release it.

No unnecessary questions

What we’re dealing with is one of the major political scandals in Austrian history. Inevitably, this will lead to political reshuffles. It may come to a return of the Great Coalition, despite the conservatives’ previous statements. After all, it is difficult to imagine their re-alliance with libertarians, though other alternatives are hard to find at the moment. However, a cutthroat political struggle between parties during the campaign two years ago will make it any easier to reach an agreement. The time of the recording’s release indicates the willingness to affect the result of the European Parliament elections, and the quality of the film – the professional preparation of the whole action.  We can only speculate whether it was done by intelligence or by cynical specialists in political marketing.

In all of this, one more thing raises unrest: the ease with which representatives of the party, which co-ruled Austria until last week, believed that the relative of a Russian oligarch wants to invest in a political change in their country. The fact that they did not bother to verify their host’s identity, even by looking up her name in Google while waiting to meet her, is not flattering to them.

Much worse is the fact that they accepted her statement without any reserve. Furthermore, they immediately cut to the chase, offering her fruitful cooperation. What would have happened, had the alleged Makarova’s affiliation been real?

Publication is co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project „Public Diplomacy 2019” („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2019”).

Polish version is available here.

This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.