May 18, 2019
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Austria’s Vice Chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, Resigns After Video Sting Is Revealed – The New York Times

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ImageVice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, center, addressing the news media in Vienna on Saturday.CreditCreditMichael Gruber/Associated PressBERLIN — Austria’s far-right vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, 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, raising questions about if Russia has a direct line to a government in the heart of Europe.The video was the worst of a series of missteps that have threatened the stability of Austria’s governing coalition, which is facing the biggest crisis in its 17-month history. It has also raised concerns about whether Mr. Strache’s Freedom’s Party has been helping Chancellor Sebastian Kurz govern with an active agenda to undermine liberal democracy in the country by plotting to do away with press freedom.The Austrian scandal comes at a big political moment in the European Union, as far-right, populist leaders are campaigning hard in elections for the European Parliament, beginning next week. Many of the 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.The video, which was filmed in a villa in Ibiza three months before the 2017 election, was obtained and published on Friday night by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, two respected news outlets. It appeared to have been filmed without Mr. Strache’s knowledge, and exposed in a raw fashion his apparent eagerness to help Russia with unethical promises for government contracts in exchange for donations to his party.The New York Times could not independently verify the contents of the entire video.The motive and the timing of the recording’s release remained unknown. Der Spiegel has refused to say how it obtained the video but confirmed that it knew the identity of its source. But what is clear from excerpts from the video is the Freedom Party’s willingness to foster close links to Russia, even if, in this case, the meeting may have been a setup, as some observers have speculated.“The road to illiberal democracy — for some apparently a synonym for kleptocracy — was long planned,” Pamela Rendi-Wagner, the head of the opposition Social Democrats, said after the video was released. “The video shows everything, says everything and provides deep insight.”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 in Austria, Mr. Strache offers her road-building contracts in the country in return.ImageChancellor Sebastian Kurz, right, with Mr. Strache in Vienna last year. For months, opposition parties have called on Mr. Kurz to end his controversial coalition with the Freedom Party.CreditChristian Bruna/EPA, via ShutterstockAfter 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 boastful like a teenager,” he said at a news conference on Saturday in Vienna.But the footage from the recording exposed an agenda that the Freedom Party had been actively pursuing since — 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 KGB 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, just 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 it may leak to Moscow.But Chancellor Kurz said in an interview with The New York Times that the links between the Freedom Party and Russia were overstated.“Regarding the close contacts between Russia and the Freedom Party, I can only smile,” he said 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.ImageA demonstration outside the Federal Chancellery after Mr. Strache’s resignation.CreditGetty Images/Getty ImagesMr. 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 that 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, ORF, 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.Mr. Strache’s dismissive comments about journalists and casual planning to undermine Austria’s media freedom are seen as ominous. Last year, an internal memo circulated by the press chief of the Interior Ministry, controlled by the Freedom Party, instructed officials to shut out critical news media and reward those that provided favorable coverage with access.Since then, the party has proposed replacing the broadcast fee that Austrians pay the public broadcaster directly with a tax-funded model that would give the government more control over the outlet.In recent weeks, a senior Freedom Party official has also demanded the removal of a television news anchor on Austria’s public broadcaster who had challenged him about a campaign poster that many said was reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.In addition to openly nurturing its ties to Russia, the Interior Ministry has also raided its own intelligence agency, notably the department investigating far-right extremism.And last month, a Freedom Party official wrote a poem calling immigrants rats.
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