BERLIN — The government coalition breakdown in Austria over the weekend continued to reverberate across Europe on Monday, as the country’s political crisis deepened with new details emerging about the videos that triggered snap elections.
What do the videos show?
In the secretly recorded 2017 footage, then-far-right opposition politician Heinz-Christian Strache promised government contracts in return for potentially illegal donations or politically motivated investments to a woman he thought was the niece of a Russian oligarch. Strache, who went on to become Austrian vice chancellor after his party formed a coalition with the mainstream conservative party later that year, could also be heard mocking Sebastian Kurz, the future chancellor and coalition partner.
Strache resigned as vice chancellor and far-right party leader on Saturday but said he had done nothing illegal. Hours later, Kurz announced the end of their coalition government, which had faced criticism from the start.
On Monday evening, Kurz also announced the ouster of far-right Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, who had been accused of abusing his oversight powers over authorities investigating cases of far-right extremism. The move is likely to result in a caretaker government, as the Freedom Party had previously threatened its withdrawal from all ministries in case Kickl was ousted.
Why is conservative Chancellor Kurz also under criticism?
Although some praised Kurz for including the far-right party in his government in 2017 as a way to force it to make concessions and engage in granular policymaking, others maintained that a party with Nazi origins needed to be sidelined at all costs.
Kurz’s choices — and the far-right party’s possible abuse of those powers — is likely to pose uncomfortable questions both for Kurz’s conservative party and the far-right Freedom Party in the months ahead of snap elections expected to take place in September.
Do the videos prove collusion between Russia and Austria’s far-right party?
The Freedom Party never made a secret of its intensifying ties to Russia after Strache took over the party in 2005. Under his more radical leadership, the party has sought closer links to the Kremlin but has denied direct funding.
Foreign intelligence services still froze their Austrian counterparts out of some information sharing, after the far-right-led Interior Ministry ordered a raid on its own domestic intelligence agency, the BVT. Documents related to far-right extremism and Russia were also seized, sparking concerns abroad that the information may be shared with the Kremlin.
The 2017 videos, secretly recorded on the Mediterranean holiday island of Ibiza, showed a party actively seeking closer ties to Russia. But while the woman Strache was interacting with pretended to be Russian, she was in fact from Latvia, according to German weekly Der Spiegel and the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which first published excerpts from the videos. The woman’s identity and motivation for the recordings remain unclear.
In the videos, Strache acknowledges the party’s friendly ties to other Russian oligarchs and his more pro-Russian strategy since 2005 — an outlook that has long been considered common knowledge among the party’s critics.
Russia has denied any involvement in the video scandal.
What do the videos prove about the Freedom Party’s stance on freedom of the press?
The videos don’t look good for the party. In the videos, Strache, over seven hours of drinking, tries to persuade the woman he believed to be a Russian oligarch family member to acquire stakes in Austria’s largest tabloid, Kronen Zeitung. One could, Strache says, “talk about anything,” if she went ahead with the purchase — implying he might be ready to engage in graft to align the paper’s editorial line with the far-right party.
Other Austrian parties also have tried to acquire stakes in the Kronen Zeitung newspaper, and political party ownership of papers is not uncommon in Europe.
But the Freedom Party has also been accused of trying to have critical journalists fired and trying to change the objective public broadcaster’s funding model to make it less impartial. None of those attempts was successful, but journalists feared that the longer the far-right party remained in power, the more opportunities it would have to erode freedom of the press in Austria. The 2017 video confirms critics’ worst fears.
What does Saturday’s announcement of a coalition breakup mean for Europe’s far-right movement?
The breakup comes as far-right parties are trying to position themselves as serious government alternatives in countries across Europe. Where the far right is part of coalition governments, however, questions have arisen over the parties’ ability to adapt to leadership roles.
In Italy, for instance, where the far right is also part of a governing coalition, tensions have mounted, too. Austria’s videos release will serve as further evidence to critics that the far right is a bad fit for government positions.
It is unlikely, however, that the far right’s current woes will also trigger a change of heart among the parties’ core supporters, many of whom suspect the recent videos to be a plot to bring down their movement.