Europe is gearing up for much-anticipated elections this week to the European parliament. Austria, however, now has to deal with a very unexpected snap election — thanks to a drunk politician, a Russian honeypot, and a leaked video. This scandal currently rocking Austria may ultimately play a decisive role in the European elections as well.
Heinz-Christian Strache was once the ambitious, successful leader of the Freedom Party in Austria. In 2017, on the heels of a strong third-place showing in the legislative elections, he led his far-right-wing populist party, which had been founded by former Nazis, into a coalition government with the more conventionally right-wing People’s Party. Sebastian Kurz, the young leader of the People’s Party, became chancellor. Strache became the vice-chancellor.
On Sunday, Strache stepped down after a seven-hour video went public of his discussions with a young Russian woman in which he promised government contracts in exchange for campaign funding. The meeting took place two years ago, before the elections that elevated Strache and his party, and it was apparently a sting operation. The woman wasn’t who she said she was (the niece of a Russian oligarch), and cameras in the villa in Ibiza where the meeting took place captured all the action.
The Austrian government is now in shambles. On Monday, Austria’s president fired one of Strache’s fellow party members, Interior Minister Herbert Kickl. The defense minister and the rest of the Freedom Party cabinet members resigned in protest.
The timing of the video’s release is curious. If it had come out before the Austrian elections two years ago, it would have nipped the Freedom Party’s electoral chances in the bud. Now it has emerged just on the eve of the European Parliament elections, which could damage the prospects of Europe’s populist right.
No one has come forward to claim authorship of the video. It was reportedly offered to several German media outlets over the last few months, but no one bought it. The set-up has all the hallmarks of Russian kompromat — the beautiful woman, the vodka, the video proof. It might make sense for the Russians to arrange and record such a meeting — in order to have something to hold over a future Austrian politician. But it makes no sense for them to turn around and release it right now.
After all, Strache has been reliably pro-Russian. Before the 2017 election, he went to Moscow to broker a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party. The Freedom Party pledged to mediate an arrangement with newly elected U.S. president Donald Trump to ease economic sanctions against Russia.
Since 2017, Russia has made considerable headway in improving ties with Austria. The most visible symbol of this new relationship was Vladimir Putin dancing with Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl at her wedding last summer. The bride bowed at the end of the dance, as if to a visiting king. Unlike many other EU countries, Austria didn’t expel any Russian diplomats after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Britain in March 2018. The two countries have signed energy deals, and Kurz promised to pursue a “step by step” reduction of sanctions against Russia when Austria occupied the EU’s rotating presidency last fall.
But not everything was hunky-dory between the two countries. In November, Austria outed a retired senior military officer as a Russian spy, prompting Kniessl to cancel a planned trip to Moscow. And neither Austria nor the EU has altered its stance on sanctions. In fact, in mid-March, the EU – along with the United States and Canada – imposed yet more sanctions on Russia connected to its “continued aggression in Ukraine.”
Russian officials have denied any connection to the video, falling back on their usual excuse: it was a provocation. But if the sting operators were indeed Russians, rather than some European intelligence outfit, perhaps the Kremlin was sending a warning to its allies in Europe that friendship comes with benefits — or else.
Russia’s European Friends
The Freedom Party is not the only European far-right movement to cultivate ties with the Kremlin, or the only one to get into trouble over those ties. Italy’s right-wing League negotiated a deal with United Russia similar to the one that Strache inked, which should have been scandalous enough.
But then, in February, an Italian magazine published allegations that Russia offered the party leader, Deputy Prime Minister Mario Salvini — who was on a trip to Moscow last year — a kickback arrangement involving sales of Russian diesel and funds diverted into the League’s election coffers. Salvini is a big Putin admirer — once, at the European parliament, he wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face — and he wants sanctions against Russia eliminated. However, he has denied the allegations.
But Strache and Salvini are pikers when compared to Putin’s friend in Budapest. It might seem like a losing political strategy for a Hungarian to align with the Kremlin, given the country’s experience as a Soviet satellite during the Cold War and the Soviet invasion of 1956. But Prime Minister Viktor Orban has imported Putin’s version of “illiberal democracy” and put a distinctly Hungarian spin on it with his control of the media and his confrontations with Brussels.
Orban has bent over backwards to help Putin. He awarded Russia a no-bid contract to modernize Hungary’s nuclear power plant (only two words are necessary to show why that was a bad idea: corruption and Chernobyl). He has criticized the EU’s economic sanctions against Russia. He has welcomed Russian individuals with high-level ties to live in Hungary and even permitted a Russian bank of shadowy provenance to set up in Budapest.
Hungarian law enforcement worked with the United States to nab two suspected Russian arms dealers only for Orban to decide to extradite the suspects — not to the United States, but back to Russia!
Then there’s Milos Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic. Like Orban, Zeman is virulently anti-immigrant and anti-Islam. Like Orban, he has managed to erase some part of the stigma once attached to Moscow, in this case for its suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. Like Orban, he wants to make sure that his country benefits from Russia’s energy supplies. But there are other, more subterranean economic reasons for his tilt toward Moscow, like the business interests of top advisors like Martin Nejedly.
Not all far-right parties in Europe are enamored of Putin. Poland’s Law and Justice Party has stayed out of any potential pro-Russian alliances because of the country’s long-standing suspicion of Russian motives. The Estonian far right is equally wary, and some of their compatriots further to the west share these concerns. “We are very concerned about Russian aggression,” says Anders Vistisen, of the Danish People’s party. “A wounded bear is dangerous.”
As with the U.S. presidential elections in 2016, the Kremlin knows that a little money and disinformation can go a long way. The point of its electoral interventions in Europe is not necessarily to put any one person or party into office. Rather, it is to undermine confidence in the liberal elite and liberal institutions.
Most importantly, Putin wants to weaken the European Union. The Kremlin would prefer not to deal with a European bloc, which is more economically and militarily powerful than Russia, and instead negotiate bilaterally with European countries. The EU supports sanctions against Russia. It broadcasts a siren song to states like Ukraine on Russia’s borders. It embodies precisely the kind of free-thinking liberalism that Putin abhors.
But the Kremlin will go even further than social media trolling and opaque financial dealings to influence European politics. It even will go as far as regime change.
The Case of Montenegro
Earlier this month, a court in Montenegro handed down guilty verdicts for 14 people involved in a coup attempt back in 2016. Two of the 14 are alleged Russian intelligence officers. According to The Washington Post:
The verdict said the group planned to take over the parliament in Montenegro on election day — Oct. 16, 2016 — assassinate then-Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic and install a pro-Russia, anti-NATO leadership in the Adriatic Sea nation.
The Russians were tried in absentia. They’d helped coordinate the coup from their perch in Serbia. The Serbian government, also closely aligned with Moscow, allowed the two to return to Russia before law enforcement could catch up with them. One of the convicted Russians, Eduard Shishmakov, had been the deputy military attache in Warsaw before being kicked out of the country for spying.
Montenegro went ahead and joined NATO in 2017, which was also part of its bid to enhance its chances of joining the European Union. Djukanovic remains prime minister. He’s the fellow that Trump nearly elbowed in the face in an awkward group gathering at the 2018 NATO summit. The president also went out of his way to disparage Montenegro when, in response to a Tucker Carlson question, he called the Montenegrins “very aggressive people.” He added, “They may get aggressive and congratulations, you’re in World War III.” It’s instructive to reinterpret Trump’s words and actions in light of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 coup attempt.
Montenegro is only one of the points of entry for Russia in its attempts to influence the course of events in the Balkans. The Kremlin also tried to upend the deal between Macedonia and Greece that finally, after several decades of acrimony, ended the dispute over what to name the former Yugoslav republic. Now known as North Macedonia, the country will become a member of NATO by year’s end.
In a more traditional bid for geopolitical influence, Putin has strengthened ties with Serbia’s authoritarian leader Aleksandar Vucic and ramped up Russian efforts as the mediator of last resort in the longstanding dispute between Serbia and Kosovo. This conflict is a win-win for Putin. A continued standoff over Kosovo’s independence makes the EU look impotent and binds Belgrade and Moscow even closer. But the Kremlin can also use any deal that provides Kosovo with international legitimacy as a precedent for its own efforts to gain recognition for Russian-aligned breakaway regions in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine.
The Problem of Russian Interference
After he was inaugurated as president, Trump told Bill O’Reilly — in response to a question about Putin being a “killer” — “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
It’s true that the United States has been involved in numerous coups around the world, both successful (Iran) and unsuccessful (Cuba). It’s also true that the United States has attempted to sway innumerable elections through both covert and open means. Trump, who knows so very well about the lack of innocence, is quite right about U.S. complicity in various international crimes.
Progressives should, of course, condemn these U.S. actions over the years. And I’m certainly no fan of an expanding NATO.
But we should also call out Russia as well. And not just because Russia attempted to interfere in U.S. elections, as detailed in the Mueller report. That’s not the worst of it, considering the number of political assassinations that the Kremlin has orchestrated on foreign soil, its involvement in the attempted coup in Montenegro, and its efforts to sway multiple European politicians.
The bottom line is that the Kremlin has backed some of the most noxious reactionaries now operating on the world scene: Viktor Orban, Mario Salvini, Heinz-Christian Strache, Marine Le Pen. Oh, yes, and Trump too.
Russian actions in its near abroad (Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltics) have revived NATO from what should have been its deathbed. And if Russia succeeds with its political vision for Europe, say goodbye to the European Union and its bold effort to apply progressive social policies across borders. (Yes, the EU’s economic program has veered off in a neoliberal direction, but that’s something to fight about within the EU framework rather than discarding the framework altogether.)
Putin’s divide-and-conquer strategy has attracted a dyspeptic band of right-wing populists, Euroskeptics, and neo-Nazis, who will likely capture a much larger share in the European parliament elections this week despite the Austrian scandal. But they don’t represent any real alternative to NATO and neo-liberalism. Follow Russia and the path leads back to 1914. Europeans deserve a brighter future, not a catastrophic rewind.
World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 22, 2019