As a new scandal with Russian spies emerges, the far-right rises in Austria

Herbert Kickl as a speaker at the anti-corona measures demonstration on December 11, 2021, in Vienna.

As a new scandal with Russian spies emerges, the far-right rises in Austria

Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer has called for a boost in the country’s security measures following the arrest of a former Austrian intelligence officer on serious allegations of spying for Russia. The officer in question denies any wrongdoing, but the accusations against him are “grave”. Reports suggest that Vienna has become the espionage capital of Europe after Russia invaded Ukraine, yet the government has not taken any immediate action to address the issue. The far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which has close ties with Russia, is also gaining popularity in the polls, posing a severe risk to Austrian national security. The chancellor has called for a meeting of Austria’s National Security Council to address the matter.

“There are serious allegations of espionage. On the one hand, the judiciary must clarify these allegations, and on the other hand, there needs to be an assessment and clarification of their impact on Austria’s security situation,” Nehammer said in a statement. “We have to avoid having Russian spy networks threaten our country by infiltrating or instrumentalising political parties and networks,” he declared on April 1.

There is a growing concern about national security in Austria due to the rise in popularity of a far-right party that has openly expressed its ties with Russia. FPÖ has been responsible for spreading harmful hate speech in the country and has already put Austria’s safety at risk with the Ibiza scandal in May 2019. The scandal, also known as Ibiza Gate, involved the then-leader of the party, Heinz-Christian Strache, and the deputy leader, Johann Gudenus. As a result, a non-confidence vote against the conservative Sebastian Kurz government led to snap legislative elections in September 2019. 

During the coalition government between the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), an EPP member, and the FPÖ, a member of the Identity and Democracy group, FPÖ’s relations with Russia became a serious concern. Herbert Kickl, the interior minister then and now the party’s leader, attempted to control Austria’s intelligence service (BVT). As a result, essential documents were declared lost, raising fears that they may have ended up in Russian hands. 

Despite these issues, a considerable part of the Austrian electorate does not consider the FPÖ a severe threat to the country’s national security. According to polls, the party attracts 27% of the vote, leaving the other significant parties behind, the Socialists with 23% and the Conservatives with 21%. 

There is no evidence of FPÖ’s involvement in the spying scandal. However, the party’s close relations with the Putin regime make it a potential vehicle for spreading Russian disinformation in Austria. 

Why the Ibiza scandal matters

The Ibiza scandal was far more critical for Austria’s national security than initially considered. The leader of the FPÖ, and Vice-Chancellor at the time, was filmed offering lucrative investment possibilities to a person who claimed to represent a Russian oligarch. Strache invited the Russians to purchase one of the country’s mass-circulation newspapers and help his party take power. In return, he promised state contracts. But in practice, Strache invited Russia to interfere in Austria’s national policy. 

Based on the video, Strache seems to have been pushing a secret agenda: creating a media environment in Austria similar to that imposed by Hungary’s Victor Orbán

FPÖ’s Russian connections

FPÖ has had close ties with the regime of Vladimir Putin for many years, dating back to the mid-2000s when Strache became the party’s president. Austria has been known for being friendly towards Russian activities, and the FPÖ has expressed its loyalty and friendship to Russia on several occasions. The party has co-organised various scientific, technological, and political events with Russian entities. Some of its MPs visited Crimea, which was annexed by Russia, to consider potential investments in the occupied territory. FPÖ MEPs have also opposed EU sanctions against Russia after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

In 2016, these relations took on an official character. That year, Norbert Hofer, an FPÖ candidate, won the first round of the presidential elections, with the Greens coming in second. By the end of the year, Hofer lost in the re-run, and the Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen won. Polls indicated that the FPÖ had the most votes, opening the way for an FPÖ-led government in the 2018 general elections.

Thus, the Russian authorities decided to openly support a party on the way to assuming power. In November 2017, a party delegation led by Strache visited Russia after an invitation from Putin’s party, ‘Yedinaya Rossiya.’ During this visit, Strache signed an agreement on cooperation between the two parties with Sergey Zheleznyak, deputy secretary of the central council of The All-Russian Political Party “United Russia.” The agreement included exchanging information on current issues regarding Russia and Austria, bilateral relations, and other matters. Although the FPÖ, under the leadership of Kickl, publicly distanced from this agreement, it let the deadline for terminating the accord pass, thereby allowing it to be renewed until 2026.

The FPÖ’s narrative suggests that the war in Ukraine is a struggle between opposing sides pursuing clashing agendas rather than a war of aggression launched by a regional power against its smaller neighbour. According to this view, Austria should remain neutral. The party criticised Brussels’ sanctions against Russia, emphasising the damage to the Austrian economy caused by increasing inflation and energy prices. The party directed its ire at the United States and the Biden administration, claiming that Washington stood to gain the most from the conflict, aiming to weaken Russia and make Europe more dependent on the USA.

Herbert Kickl promised that Austria would stop allocating money to Ukraine if his party came to power after the parliamentary elections. Furthermore, on February 2, the Russian news agency TASS reported that Kickl accused Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer of betraying his country by supporting the EU’s proposal to send €50 billion in aid to Ukraine. “In supporting the transfer of €50 billion to the [Ukrainian President] Zelensky regime, Chancellor Karl Nehammer once again betrayed the Austrian people and sacrificed hard-earned taxpayer dollars to the EU’s Brussels altar,” he said in a press statement.

Is Austria a centre for Russian spies? 

On July 14, 2023, the Financial Times published an article titled ‘It’s really the Wild West’: Vienna’s spying problem spins out of control’. The article cited information and comments from European sources, one of which suggested that Austria has become a ‘veritable aircraft carrier’ of Russian agents. 

As Austria is home to several large international organisations, including the International Atomic Energy Agency, OPEC, and several UN agencies, the rise in spying in Vienna has drawn criticism from allies. However, the country has avoided undercover intelligence activity on its soil – as long as the target of the operations is not the Austrian government. 

Consequently, Austria’s credibility in security matters is undermined, and the country is already excluded from many intelligence-sharing arrangements in Europe.

As the government has shown considerable delay in tackling espionage, the liberal opposition party Neos has proposed criminalising espionage “against a foreign state or an international organisation” in Austria. However, the government has twice used its clout in parliament to suspend any votes on the issue. After an explosion in undercover activity, the country’s three largest opposition parties jointly backed legislative changes in spring to finally criminalise espionage in Austria. But months later, nothing happened due to repeated government stalling. 

Since Moscow’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, European countries have expelled over 400 Russian spies posing under diplomatic cover from their territories. However, Austria has expelled just four! 

A severe threat

It is not the first time Western intelligence agencies warned their Austrian counterparts about espionage activities for Russia. Last month, Austria expelled two Russian diplomats from Russia’s Embassy in Vienna for suspected spying. Furthermore, it is concerning that while all EU member states have reduced their dependence on Russian energy supplies, the Austrian federal government has steadily increased the country’s dependence. The opposition party NEOs was the only group to warn about the risks of such a situation and called for action to be taken.

“The Austrian federal government must finally wake up. The number of Russian diplomats in Austria must be reduced to the absolute minimum. After all, around a third of the embassy staff are suspected of being spies,” NEOS foreign policy spokesman and EU leading candidate Helmut Brandstätter said. “The head of the Russian Cultural Institute is spreading propaganda instead of culture and must be expelled immediately. In addition, the cultural institute must finally be closed, as I have requested several times. More than two years have now passed since the attack on Ukraine – and we still have no new security strategy; we are still just as dependent on Russian gas as we were before the war, and we are still a haven for Russian spies. The federal government talks a lot but does far too little. But talking alone is not enough. A warmonger like Putin cannot be stopped with empty announcements,” said Brandstätter.

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