Austria once again finds itself at the centre of it all

The small Alpine republic of Austria is no stranger to political scandals, from the Shakespeare-esque Mayerling Incident involving Crown Prince Rudolf to the cash-for-influence scandal that sent former interior minister and MEP Ernst Strasser to prison in 2013 and almost brought the entire European Union to its knees. Today, the shockwaves of the most recent controversy to hit Vienna continue to reverberate throughout its political system, not least within the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). 

Ousted following the collapse of the governing ÖVP-FPÖ coalition following the breaking of the Ibiza video affair, former FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache seems now ready to seek revenge for his – and his wife’s – treatment in the affair. Both were publicly humiliated by the scandal. Heinz-Christian was forced to resign as vice-chancellor of Austria and chairman of the FPÖ, while Philippa’s mandate in Austrian Parliament has been under scrutiny for months.  

Wronged by his party, Strache is expected to go public with all kinds of other information that could end the careers of other high-ranking FPÖ figures, including the party’s new leader, Nobert Hofer – and even taint the image of Sebastian Kurz, Strache’s former coalition partner and Austrian chancellor, who managed to escape unscathed from this political earthquake.

The Ibiza affair caused the FPÖ to crash in September’s snap national elections. Kurz had swiftly distanced himself from the right soon after the scandal broke and is now been eyeing a partnership with the Greens after securing a major election victory with more than 38 percent of the vote for the moderate conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). The victory means that Kurz has emerged with a clean slate that could usher in a new era in Austrian politics.

A conservative-Green alliance would be unprecedented in the country, but Kurz has defended the move. His main interest, says one adviser, is “stability and reliability,” and Kurz may well use ties to the Greens to rebrand his entire party as the new centre. The alliance is certainly predicted to be a stable one: according to political analyst Thomas Hofer, the marriage would form a “coalition of winners.” News of a Strache revival, then, is sure to be more than a little disturbing for the Kurz team.   

The current political upset is guaranteed to focus the attention of the whole of the EU on Vienna, as the new government that forms may well set a precedent for other EU countries at a time when the old mainstream parties are struggling amid surging far-right and Green parties. For a small country, Austria has certainly garnered a lot of attention already, though the fallout from Ibiza-gate is not the only reason people are watching closely from the side-lines. Indeed, Austria has also been at the centre of an even more explosive scandal: Donald Trump’s impeachment investigation.

This parallel saga surrounds Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who has been fighting extradition to the US from the Austrian capital since 2014. The renewed interest in him stems from the fact that Congressional Democrats are trying to tie him to the Ukraine affair in an effort to get ammo in their impeachment proceedings against Trump. They have claimed that Firtash maintained contacts to Rudy Giuliani through two associates who donated substantial sums to Donald Trump and other GOP candidates.

Firtash

But for Firtash, these accusations are par for the course, as the Ukrainian has been claiming to be at the centre of a politically motivated campaign since 2014. An affidavit from the former general prosecutor of Ukraine, Viktor Shokin, adds support to Firtash’s assertions. According to Shokin, the US government interfered in Firtash’s legal situation as early as 2015, pressuring Kyiv to prevent his return to the country, as well as insisting on the country passing gas-market reforms that ended up costing Firtash hundreds of millions of dollars.  

It is not surprising that Firtash claims to be subject to a political smear campaign. After all, Firtash’s legal woes stem from charges levied by the US that he participated in a bribery scheme to help Boeing snatch titanium deals in India. The main piece of evidence presented in that case, “Exhibit A”, turned out to be a single PowerPoint slide prepared by McKinsey, while the Austrian judge presiding over the case raised doubts whether some of Washington’s witnesses were real. Some have since recanted their testimony, with one claiming he signed the prewritten document after the FBI exercised “undue pressure on him". Nevertheless, Austrian’s Supreme Court ultimately greenlit the extradition, which has been since been halted after Firtash’s legal team submitted fresh evidence. 

As the Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns are entering the hot phase a year before the elections, Austria is at risk of getting caught in the middle of the rising fever pitch. For Vienna, these developments carry a significant risk at a time when its own political landscape is vulnerable to shocks. Austria would do well to avoid becoming a tool in the hands of the U.S. establishment.

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Phillipe Jeune

Phillipe Jeune

Phillipe Jeune is a Paris-based freelance journalist, and an occasional contributor to EU Today. He has a background in intelligence gathering, and he specialises in business and political matters, with a particular interest in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Americas.

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