How Russia Is Making Austria Ground Zero in the Battle for Europe

How Russia Is Making Austria Ground Zero in the Battle for Europe

Last week a leaked video brought down Austria’s government over fears of political graft and covert Russian influence.

SourceAlex Domanski/Getty

Why you should care

Moscow is extending its influence beyond the far-right to mainstream Austrian parties. 

Just 48 hours after a leaked video brought down Austria’s government over fears of political graft and covert Russian influence earlier this month, a motorcade of black-windowed vehicles disgorged a high-ranking delegation of Russian officials onto the Ringstrasse.

Among them were Alexander Grushko, Russia’s deputy foreign minister; the chairman of the Russian Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee; and the head of Russia’s biggest business lobby, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. All were in town as guests of the Austrian Foreign Ministry.

The delegation had been expecting to be feted by senior Austrian officials and ministers at the National Defense Academy, the self-described “brain trust” of Austria’s official armed forces and security establishment. Johannes Peterlik, head of Austria’s Foreign Office and an appointee of the far-right Freedom Party, had been due to open the session with a keynote speech. The Freedom Party’s leadership were expected for drinks at the Russian Embassy.

The Viennese reception for a high-powered delegation from Russia, which is under European Union and United States sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine, was a timely reminder of the close links between Austria’s right-wing government and the Kremlin.

The Austrian far-right has really turned around 180 degrees.

Bernhard Weidinger, expert in postwar right-wing extremism

These links have made Austria an object of suspicion for Western intelligence agencies, EU capitals and some ultra-conservative movements in Europe. They inevitably raised questions about the judgment of Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s now-ousted young chancellor and leader of the Austrian People’s Party, who not only formed a coalition with the far-right but then handed it control of the Interior, Defense and Foreign Ministries. In fact, Karin Kneissl, the foreign minister, invited Vladimir Putin to her wedding last year.

Austria’s susceptibility to Russian influence was exposed recently when then-Vice Chancellor and far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache was shown on video discussing illegal party donations, supposedly from a wealthy Russian, in return for government contracts. Kurz quickly moved to eject Strache and his allies from his government, and far-right delegates ousted Kurz in a no-confidence vote on Monday.

The woman in the Strache video said she was the niece of Russian oligarch Igor Makarov. Makarov told Russian media he was not involved, had no niece and was using legal methods to find out who had used his name without permission. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week the scandal “does not have and could not have anything to do with us.”

But many political watchers in Vienna say Strache’s priorities were clear from the start. For years now, the party has blazed a trail among Europe’s right-wing populist movements in fostering ties to President Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

“The Austrian far-right has really turned around 180 degrees in the last 15 years or so,” says Bernhard Weidinger, an expert in Austrian postwar right-wing extremism. “Historically they were really very anti-Russian. Nowadays, really the entire far-right, including neo-Nazis, are clearly pro-Russian, and by pro-Russian I mean pro-Kremlin and pro-Putin.”

In December 2016, Strache and Freedom Party officials even visited Moscow to sign a formal 10-year “cooperation agreement” between the Freedom Party and United Russia, Russia’s largest pro-Putin party, committing to “share experiences” and regularly exchange expertise. Vienna has meanwhile become an international hub for Russian-linked hard-line right-wing activities. A recent report by Austrian academics for the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute said the city was “a safe haven for the Kremlin’s expanding pro-Russian extremist network throughout Europe.”

Yet the relationship between the Freedom Party and Russia is not one-dimensional.

“The Kremlin is not a homogeneous thing,” says Christo Grozev, a prominent Vienna-based analyst of Russia’s extraterritorial political interests. “There is not necessarily a coordinated policy directing this.”

Different factions constantly vie for power, he says, while the particular focus of Putin on Russia’s international influence and prestige lead the competing “towers of the Kremlin” to look outside Russia for projects and initiatives to gain traction. Five years ago, for example, the Russian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, a sponsor of hard-line conservative projects linked to the Orthodox Church, was one of the main conduits between the Austrian far-right and the Kremlin. While Malofeev built ideological bridges, however, he was less able to plug the Freedom Party into other power structures in Moscow. And as his novelty has waned among Putin’s inner circle, so has the Freedom Party’s ease of access to some Kremlin officials.

Experts say the focus on the Freedom Party masks a more important point about Russia’s connections with Austria: the value that powerful figures in the Kremlin place on ties to the country’s two mainstream political parties, the Austrian Social Democrats and Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party.

“The Russians have very good relations with the SPÖ and the ÖVP,” says Anton Shekhovtsov, a lecturer at the University of Vienna and author of a recent book on Russia’s connections to Europe’s far-right, referring to the Austrian initialisms for the parties. “They don’t want to spoil relations with these parties.”

In particular, says Shekhovtsov, the Russians value the deep connections these traditional parties give them to Austrian business. For the past two years, according to one analyst based in Vienna with ties to Moscow, the Kremlin’s focus has shifted back onto wooing the socialists and conservatives in Austria. A recent delegation from a potential future candidate to replace Putin, he says, got in contact to try to establish channels to the two parties, but expressed no interest in meeting the far-right. “Austria is still seen in Russia as the Kremlin’s most important ally in Europe,” says the analyst, who requested anonymity.

When Grushko delivered his speech last Tuesday, he did so in a cramped meeting room on the fourth floor of the Grand Hotel Wien — a hasty change of venue to avoid negative headlines about their presence in the defense academy.

But he received an enthusiastic reception from an intimate, largely Austrian and Russian audience when he berated the West with a familiar catalog of sins favored by the Kremlin: NATO’s aggressive expansionism, vicious American unilateralism and a sprawling neoliberal effort to reshape the global order through regime change and war.

“The situation is absolutely absurd,” Grushko said, without irony, “when countries that preach multilateralism as the alpha and the omega of their foreign policy conveniently use [it] to camouflage their unilateralism …  to evade the rules of the game.”

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By Sam Jones and Valerie Hopkins

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