Austria. The Revival of “Putin’s Friends”

Corruption is the main instrument of Russia’s influence on the West, and aside from hydrocarbons, it is the only successful “nomenclature” of export. Due to the growth of this vile phenomenon in the West, the term “strategic corruption” has even been coined.

Russia honed strategic corruption in Ukraine, where due to the weakness of internal institutions, Kremlin agents infiltrated the country and made the necessary decisions. However, it works somewhat differently in Western countries. Here, the scheme of pro-Kremlin lobbying is applied, as currently performed by Fico and Orban in their countries, leading to “grateful and comfortable old age.” But there is also an element of “friendly” connections among politicians, officials, industrialists, and top managers.

If the motivation of Western ex-officials to work in Russia is clear—money and presence in the information space—the question arises, why does Russia need such people? The participation of former Western experts and politicians on the boards of Russian state companies and high positions of top managers in these state companies is one of many ways to corrupt the West.

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Former politicians with a name and ex-top managers of Western giant companies are invited. They are paid huge salaries—this allows Russian companies to clean up their image in the eyes of Europeans, which otherwise would be associated with corrupt warehouses filled with piles of cash and the plundering of natural resources, akin to Latin American drug cartel “cash flows.” Russia’s motivation to hire former European politicians is as follows: access to connections, including with current politicians. An ex-politician is a very good lobbyist with a reputation.

However, there is a second reason. Hiring European ex-politicians for profitable positions is more about fulfilling obligations by the Russian side for already rendered services. After all, a “place in Putin’s club” must be earned while you are still in power in your country. Essentially, pro-Kremlin European politicians, under the guise of being “Putin’s useful idiots,” monetize their position and invest in a secure old age by selling the interests of their countries’ peoples and their votes in elections to Kremlin policies.

One of Putin’s greatest “acquisitions” was Christian Kern, an experienced Austrian manager and former chancellor, who managed to head the Austrian government for a year before going to work in Russia. In 2010, he got a job at the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB), and four years later he headed the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies. Kern gained high ratings in 2015 when Europe was experiencing a migration crisis, and he took on the organization of refugee transit.

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As a result, in the spring of the following year, he headed the government from the Social Democratic Party of Austria. During his year at the helm, he managed to criticize EU and US anti-Russian sanctions for aggression against Ukraine. In the 2017 elections, Kurz and his party won, and Kern moved to the opposition. But a year later, he announced his departure from politics to the private sector. In the summer of 2019, he joined the board of directors of Russian Railways, where he continues to work to this day. The spy scandal did not hinder this.

Another major European trophy, a heavyweight trophy, is Wolfgang Schüssel. He spent his entire conscious life in politics, becoming Austria’s Minister of Economy in 1989, and six years later he led the party and held two positions simultaneously: vice-chancellor and foreign minister.

But his real moment of glory came a year later—Schüssel became the Chancellor of Austria. Not without a scandal, of course. Thirteen EU countries significantly reduced contacts with Schüssel’s government, which was even perceived as the imposition of informal sanctions against Austria. There were protests within the country, but the situation was managed, although there were no changes in the political arrangements in Austria. Schüssel remained chancellor until 2007. Even though he was always a member of the Austrian People’s Party, Schüssel held positions in the Austrian government exclusively in coalition with the Social Democratic Party of Austria, the Freedom Party of Austria, and later the Alliance for the Future of Austria.

Afterward, he moved to the private sector, beginning to openly speak with pro-Russian rhetoric. In 2014, Schüssel spoke against anti-Russian sanctions at the Valdai Discussion Club. According to him, restrictive measures are “always a sign of failure,” and thus, better understanding should be sought. Ultimately, his career path led Schüssel to work in Russia: from 2018 to 2019, he was a member of the board of directors of MTS, and in 2019, he joined the board of directors of the oil company Lukoil, where he continues to work to this day.

Karin Kneissl is a politician of a significantly smaller caliber compared to Fillon and Schröder but is nonetheless well-known. Officially unaffiliated with any party, on December 18, 2017, she became Austria’s Foreign Minister in Sebastian Kurz’s government under the quota of the Austrian Freedom Party. The former Austrian Foreign Minister is best remembered worldwide for dancing with Putin at her wedding in the summer of 2018. Putin arrived with a troupe of Cossack singers who performed for the guests, and he brought the newlyweds a bouquet, a painting, an antique oil press, and a samovar. Putin then danced with Kneissl. Only one media outlet, Russia Today, broadcasted the wedding footage. This dance turned into a scandal for Kneissl. European politicians criticized her for undermining the EU’s common stance and extending a hand to the Russian regime. In Austria, there were calls for her resignation.

As the head of the Foreign Ministry, she advocated for dialogue with the Kremlin. In the spring of 2018, when Russia poisoned Skripal in Britain, Austria decided not to expel Russian diplomats, stating it wanted to remain “a bridge between East and West” and not close “channels of communication with Russia.” However, complete neutrality could not be maintained. By 2019, Kneissl left the government and fully revealed her position: she gave interviews and comments to Russia Today and became their columnist. Kneissl’s pro-Russian stance “paid off” in March 2021 when the Russian authorities approved her as a member of the board of directors of Rosneft, and she settled in a village near Ryazan. Her salary was not disclosed, but annually, Rosneft board members receive no less than half a million euros.

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On May 23, 2022, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and after the corporation was included in the EU sanctions list, she submitted her resignation from the Rosneft board of directors, declining to extend her term from May 20. In July, she announced her departure from the country “due to threats of violence.”

Austria has complex relations with Moscow. After World War II, the last Soviet soldier left the sovereign territory of Austria only on October 19, 1955. It was in Austria, in the family of Alois Johann Schicklgruber, who took the surname of his stepfather Hiedler, and Klara Pölzl, that Adolf Hitler was born—the future Reich Chancellor and Führer of Germany. Notably, Adolf’s mother was both the wife and cousin of Alois, making Alois both Adolf’s father and his maternal cousin simultaneously. Astonishingly, there are no fascist parties in Austria. After the war, Austria, like Germany, was divided into allied occupation zones. The Kremlin still closely monitors official Vienna and attempts to influence its political life through manipulation by corrupt politicians. The examples above make such usage quite evident. As we see, Putin’s circle of useful friends in Austria is, to some extent, connected with the Social Democratic Party of Austria and the Austrian Freedom Party, which bring Kremlin perspectives into their society.

If we move from history to present times, Ukraine is grateful to Austria for providing refuge and assistance to Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war started by Russia.

Recently, in May 2024, an incident occurred at a city council meeting in this city with the mediation of the local charitable organization Klosterneuburg Hilft, which cares for 600 Ukrainian refugees.

The mayor of Bucha—a city globally known for the atrocities committed by Russian occupiers against its peaceful residents—Anatoliy Fedoruk, spoke at the municipal council meeting of the Austrian city of Klosterneuburg. However, representatives of the far-right “Austrian Freedom Party” (FPÖ) and the “Social Democratic Party of Austria” (SPÖ) did not welcome his speech, stating that it was “not a topic for the council.”

Pro-Russian “Free” Far-Right

So, who are Putin’s friends in Austria? By unfortunate tradition, they are usually far-right and far-left, with similar rhetoric, voting patterns, and fulfilling Kremlin’s orders. The far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and its leader Herbert Kickl, under the guise of the country’s neutrality, indeed side with Russia and serve as its propaganda tool in the country and Europe as a whole.

The Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ) was founded in 1956, with its first leader being former Nazi officer Anton Reinthaller. It is known for organizing protests against quarantine measures and vaccinations. However, its central promise was to turn Austria into a “fortress” against migration.

The current leader of FPÖ, Herbert Kickl, promises to veto the “senseless” EU sanctions against Russia if he becomes chancellor. In March 2023, together with all party members, he walked out of the parliament during President Zelensky’s video address, leaving placards with the party’s logo and the inscriptions “Place for Neutrality” and “Place for Peace” on their desks.

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During a press conference, the Secretary-General of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), Christian Stocker, stated: “The Austrian Freedom Party has become a tool of Kremlin propaganda in our country and also in Europe. Therefore, it occupies a special place in Russia’s campaign to destabilize Europe. The fact that FPÖ issued 280 press releases demanding the lifting of sanctions (EU sanctions against Russia) says everything you need to know about the relationship between Kickl and Putin. Since the start of this aggressive war, FPÖ has submitted eight resolutions calling for the lifting of sanctions – a topic that FPÖ has made its goal,” said the politician.

The Secretary-General of the ÖVP, led by Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer, also pointed out that the Freedom Party’s closeness to the Kremlin is evident. The proximity of the Austrian Freedom Party to Russia is clear and part of the party’s policy. A journalistic investigation found that hacked emails from a top Russian propagandist, published by the magazine Profil, provide further evidence that the visits of FPÖ politicians to Russia and the annexed Crimean peninsula were part of a well-planned Russian system.

It is also noteworthy that FPÖ previously “concluded a friendship agreement with Putin’s dictatorial party, United Russia” – “and this also highlights the political stance of the party and Kickl on this issue.”

The Freedom Party tries to position itself as the defender of Austria’s neutrality, which is actually “a paradox.” “The Freedom Party does not act neutrally but on the side of Russia, which is waging an aggressive war in the heart of Europe.”

In Ukraine and many European countries, the Austrian Freedom Party is seen as siding with Russia. How will the FPÖ leader explain his confidence that Russia will cease its aggression once all EU sanctions are lifted and will not immediately invade the next country? Does Kickl have any undisclosed information on this matter? Against this backdrop, the representative of Austria’s ruling party, Stocker, emphasized that the end of EU sanctions against Russia would indeed “mean the end of Ukraine.” He also called on the Freedom Party’s leader to provide written evidence that the cooperation agreement signed in 2016 with Putin’s United Russia no longer exists.

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Previously, the media reported that this agreement is automatically renewed if not canceled within the specified time frame, so there should be some document canceling the deal.

“We are talking about an Austrian parliamentary party – the Freedom Party – having a friendship agreement with a party of the regime that started the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II by attacking the free state of Ukraine. Therefore, the Austrian people have the right to clarification on this matter,” said Christian Stocker.

Moreover, the Secretary-General of the Austrian People’s Party inquired whether there are any other secret additional agreements that the FPÖ keeps hidden besides this official agreement. Stocker also called for answers on who financed the trips of FPÖ politicians to Russia and the Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia, especially Crimea.

As is known, the far-right Austrian Freedom Party is the only Austrian parliamentary party that advocates for lifting EU sanctions against Russia and stopping the EU’s military support for Ukraine. It also criticizes various efforts by the federal government to support Ukraine, including demining initiatives.

Kickl is also friends with Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán. In March 2023, he visited Budapest and wrote about the unnecessary sanctions against Russia, calling for a ceasefire and the start of negotiations. He also praised Orbán’s fight against migration.

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And, of course, what would Putin’s far-right friends be without a scandal? The scandal involving the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) shocked all of Austria and the global political scene, going down in history as “Ibizagate.” It became the most striking characterization of this political force and the morals prevailing within the party.

The scandal was triggered on May 17, 2019, by the publication of a secret video recording of a meeting in Ibiza, Spain, in July 2017, which featured FPÖ politicians Strache – the Vice-Chancellor and leader of the Freedom Party – and Gudenus – the deputy leader of the Freedom Party – discussing their party’s behind-the-scenes actions and intentions. In the video, both politicians appeared receptive to the proposals of a woman posing as the niece of Russian oligarch Igor Makarov, who later denied any connections with her. The interlocutors discussed providing the Freedom Party with positive news coverage in exchange for government contracts. Five people attended the meeting, but the full video was not published. Strache and Gudenus also hinted at corrupt political practices allegedly involving other wealthy donors to the Freedom Party in Europe and beyond. The video demonstrated the Freedom Party’s intention to suppress press freedom in Austria by replacing it with biased media, with the additional aim of turning the country’s most popular tabloid, Kronen Zeitung, into the Freedom Party’s mouthpiece.

Strache further suggested that she donate funds through their party channels, which would be difficult to trace. During the conversation, Strache mentioned having contacts with Israelis who oppose left-wing politics in Israel and that he had been invited to China to promote business between Austria and China. Strache likely also said that companies like Glock Ges. m.b.H. and Novomatic, as well as investors Heidi Horten and René Benko, made large donations to both the Freedom Party and the ÖVP using non-profit organizations. Strache also stated that Hans Peter Haselsteiner, a major shareholder in the construction company Strabag, would no longer receive commissions from the government.

In the video, Strache expressed his desire to “create a media landscape like Orbán’s” – Viktor Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary, has established complete control over all media in the country through a single supervisory authority, appointing his relatives to key positions.

Additionally, Strache told the supposed investor that he had been to Russia many times and had met with advisors to Russian President Vladimir Putin to establish “strategic cooperation.” Both Freedom Party leaders were forced to resign. At the time of the scandal, the current leader Kickl was the Minister of the Interior and led the investigation into the Ibiza affair.

Ultra-Left Veterans in Search of a Sponsor

The Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) was founded at the congress in Hainfeld on December 31, 1888 – January 1, 1889, uniting separate social-democratic groups and organizations.
The congress adopted a program based mainly on Marxist principles; it spoke of the need to destroy the capitalist system and establish a socialist order in which the means of production would belong to the entire society. It proclaimed the principle of proletarian internationalism and set the task of “raising the proletariat’s awareness of its position.” However, the Hainfeld program did not address the issues of the dictatorship of the proletariat or the relationship with the peasantry, nor did it provide a Marxist solution to the national problem, which was very relevant for Austria-Hungary. As we can see, it is a classical Marxist party with over a century-old connection to Russia. Due to its venerable age, this party is less prone to scandals than its younger counterparts in the political landscape.

The re-election of Babler as the party chairman with an 89% result demonstrates the majority’s support for his course. They highly appreciated his efforts to integrate various factions of the party. The politician persistently polishes his image through practical work with the party base and the country’s population, refuting accusations from some experts and the media of being uneducated and having weak knowledge of the European and Austrian social-democratic movements. For Babler, former Chancellor B. Kreisky serves as a role model. In the 1970s, Kreisky managed to largely realize the “Austrian dream” of having one’s own cozy home, free education for children from working-class families, the most advanced education and healthcare systems, and turning Vienna into an attractive platform for multilateral diplomacy. The slogan of the party forum about the return of justice in Kreisky’s spirit indicates the direction of the ideology and practice of modern Austrian social democracy.

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It should be noted that the SPÖ is not a classic party of “Putin’s friends” on Moscow’s payroll. Rather, the Kremlin tries to manipulate the views of Austria’s social democrats to promote its policies in Europe. Moscow actively fuels sentiments about the high cost of living, motivating this by the fact that 52% of gas in Austria came from Russia and speculating on the break of “cultural” ties with Vienna.

This aligns with the party’s concern for the country’s internal problems, making the SPÖ more conservative than other Austrian parties. The party constantly criticizes the government and the chancellor for the rise in prices of basic foodstuffs, the lack of affordable housing, unaffordable utility tariffs, radical projects in the fields of climate and environmental protection, and a weak international agenda. For one-third of Austrians, vacations have become an unaffordable luxury, and one-quarter have to save on food and consumer goods. Inflation, unseen for 70 years, is on the rise, which aligns with Moscow’s propaganda.

The party raises the issue of migrants, as almost 67% of Austrians surveyed believe that the integration system, if it works at all, does so “poorly or very poorly.” Moscow exploits this dissatisfaction among Austrian citizens, voiced by the SPÖ leader, in its propaganda, trying to advance the narrative of vilifying Ukrainian refugees.

Moreover, Kremlin agitators are trying to inflame the May incident with the “NATO letter,” speculating on the topic of neutrality.

The matter concerns a report by Die Presse stating that a group of four neutral European countries, including Austria, Ireland, Malta, and Switzerland, sent a letter to NATO at the end of 2023 proposing extended cooperation. According to the publication, after Finland and Sweden joined NATO, these countries intended to position their group as WEP4 (Western European Partners 4). In the letter, the WEP4 states their intentions to expand their participation in NATO military maneuvers, seek “privileged access to NATO documents and information,” increase intelligence sharing, and establish cooperation with the alliance in cybersecurity, critical infrastructure protection, and combating “new disruptive technologies.”

The chairman of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), Andreas Babler, called on the authorities to disclose the contents of the letter proposing extended cooperation, sent by Vienna along with Ireland, Malta, and Switzerland to NATO at the end of 2023.

“We just learned from the media that the government sent a fawning letter to NATO. I urge this government: to stop deceiving the public. Reveal the NATO letter. The government is preparing to join NATO through the back door. Without informing either the parliament or the public, this government wants to gradually drag us into the NATO military alliance. A shameful spectacle,” Babler wrote on X (formerly Twitter). The head of the Social Democrats also stated that if he were the head of the government, he “guarantees non-entry into NATO.” According to him, the federal chancellor of the alpine republic, Karl Nehammer, treats neutrality “like a decommissioned armored personnel carrier.”

“To establish peace, we need a bold, active policy of neutrality. No kowtowing to military alliances. Our neutrality is a guarantee of Austria’s security. It is part of our identity,” Babler emphasized.

However, these facts are not the only cause for concern. Last year, in 2023, the opposition Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) reached a settlement with its colleagues in the parliament, the Austrian Freedom Party, which the political force accused of allegedly receiving funding from Russia amid their calls for lifting sanctions against Moscow. According to the party’s press service: “The SPÖ can no longer claim that the Freedom Party received money from Russia in parliament. The Social Democrats must retract their past statements and pay more than €2.7 thousand in compensation,” which may indicate continued cooperation in the Austrian parliament in the Kremlin’s interests, as some SPÖ politicians repeatedly play into the hands of Russian propaganda outlets, confirming injected narratives and also calling for the lifting of EU sanctions against the Kremlin imposed due to Russia’s war against Ukraine.

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