Heinz-Christian Strache, vice-chancellor of Austria and leader of the country’s rightwing populist Freedom Party, has been filmed offering government contracts to individuals posing as representatives of a Russian oligarch in return for political support.
The revelations, published in a joint story by German news outlets Der Spiegel and the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Friday evening, have thrown Austria’s ruling government coalition into crisis, raising the prospect of a major government reshuffle, if not a snap election, to be announced in the coming hours.
Mr Strache’s position in power is now considered untenable, according to many in Vienna, with chancellor Sebastian Kurz likely to take a decision this weekend on his deputy’s, and his government’s, future.
Spokespeople for the FPÖ and Mr Strache did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
Excerpts of over seven hours of video footage, taken covertly, show Mr Strache appearing to suggest lucrative government construction work could be given to his interlocutors should they purchase Austria’s largest newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung, and shift its editorial content to support his party, the FPÖ.
The footage was filmed two years ago, just weeks prior to the July 2017 election, success in which brought the FPÖ into government as junior coalition partner to the mainstream conservative Austrian People’s Party.
Mr Strache, and his longstanding confidant, Johann Gudenus — now an elected MP — believed themselves to have been meeting the niece of one of Russia’s most powerful oligarchs.
The FPÖ has long favoured the Kremlin in its foreign policy stance. But its relations with Russia have historically lacked much substance. The FPÖ signed a co-operation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party in 2016, but as the video appears to show, were still casting a net for Russian backers a year later.
According to Anton Shekhovtsov, an external lecturer at the University of Vienna and the author of Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir, Mr Gudenus, is the “most important Russian link.” The MP, a key ally of Mr Strache, has numerous ties to Russia, according to Mr Shekhovtsov, including a long record of travelling there, learning the language and business relations.
“He was the guy who contributed a lot to establishing relations with Russian actors so I presume they might have got first to him somehow and acted in a pretty smart way to convince him that there were real businessmen behind it,” he said.
It is not clear who the undercover individuals who set up the meeting and posed as Russian representatives were, nor why the footage has only now come to light.
Der Spiegel and the Süddeutsche Zeitung said they had only recently been passed copies of the tapes. The exact context of the excerpts which appear to implicate Mr Strache is also unknown.
The meeting took place in a private villa in Ibiza. Footage shows an informal gathering in a private room around a large sofa. A visibly relaxed Mr Strache, wearing jeans and a T-shirt, is seen smoking and drinking while talking expansively.
Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that the clips and quotes they had published formed part of a wide-ranging discussion of different options and scenarios in which Russian support for Mr Strache in the election, and investment in Austria, might be repaid.
Mr Strache speculates in one clip that the Russian’s takeover of the Kronen Zeitung — even if it only happened two or three weeks before the election — could help push support for the FPÖ’s share of the vote as high as 34 per cent. In the event, the FPÖ won 26 per cent of the vote, just one seat away from supplanting the Social Democrats as Austria’s second party.
“If you take over the Kronen Zeitung three weeks before the election and get us into first place, then we can talk about everything,” Mr Strache says.
Among such possibilities, he suggests, would be for the Russians to “set up a company like Strabag”, referring to the Austrian construction giant. “All the government orders that Strabang gets now, [you] would get,” he continues.
Mr Strache also appears to go into detail on the kind of changes that would have to be made at Kronen Zeitung, suggesting three or four journalists who would have to be immediately “pushed”, and five “new people who we will build up.”
Journalists, explains Mr Strache at another point in the filming, “are the biggest whores on the planet”. The west is decadent, Mr Strache goes on to say. “In the east, you are normal.”