The video of Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, of the far-right Freedom Party, appearing to promise government contracts to a purported niece of a leading Russian oligarch was the last straw in what had become an uneasy coalition with the center-right party of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Late Saturday, Kurz called for new national elections “as soon as possible.”
Whatever happened to Austria? Forty years ago, when I was first reporting on Austria, Chancellor Bruno Kreisky was a proud beacon of European socialism that stretched from France under President François Mitterrand, across Germany under Chancellor Willy Brandt and to the doorstep of the Kremlin-controlled iron curtain nations that began on Austria’s eastern frontier. Kreisky boasted to me in May 1979 after an overwhelming vote of confidence by his people, that Austria would maintain its hard-won neutrality at all costs and contain Soviet ambitions.
Today, that landscape across Europe is in tatters. But Austria’s politics in 2019 are not nearly as surprising as you might think.
Created after World War I from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, and allied with Germany, it has long had a strong flirtation with the far right. After all, it was the birthplace of Adolf Hitler, who saw his homeland as an integral part of the Third Reich. After World War II, it quickly embraced an uneasy neutrality, as it sought to shake off heavy Soviet exploitation.
In the last national parliamentary elections in 2017, the Socialists narrowly outpolled the Freedom Party, 52 seats to 51. But with none receiving a majority of seats, Kurz, whose Austrian People’s Party won 62 seats, chose to throw his lot in with the far right to build a ruling coalition.
Before the arrival of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the far right had always been seen as an important counterweight to the Socialists in Austria, a nation determined to chart a neutral course and which has never joined the NATO alliance. The problem is that today both the Kremlin and the White House seem determined to shatter such neutrality and erode the foundations of a united Europe — a bad idea if I ever saw one.
“Vienna plays a key role for Putin and for the far right,” Peter Pilz, an independent Austrian lawmaker told The New York Times. “Far-right parties all over Europe have become a sort of fifth column for Russia. In Austria, that fifth column has been in government.”
As part of the ruling government coalition, the Freedom Party has sought to chip away at Austria’s traditional, hard-won neutrality. In the secretly recorded video, Strache compared journalists to prostitutes. He even suggested that Victor Orbán, the far-right prime minister of neighboring Hungary, was brilliant when he had the idea of engaging political allies to buy up broad chunks of that nation’s private media, turning it into his own propaganda machine. This is the same Orbán who, sitting next to President Trump in the Oval Office last week, beamed as Trump exclaimed, “it’s like we’re twins.”
Strache has long been a leading voice in the broader far-right political landscape of Europe and an outspoken opponent of immigration from the Middle East and Africa. His forced resignation from both the vice chancellor position and his leadership of the Freedom Party can only serve as a blow to the far-right agenda across Europe.
For Austria, the forced coalition hasn’t been an easy road, but one that Kurz brought on himself and should have been better prepared to navigate as leader of the center-right party. It has been a difficult road, made more so by his decision to turn the powerful Interior Ministry and its police arms over to the Freedom Party. Foreign intelligence organizations have halted most information-sharing with Austria over fear that intelligence could wind up in Russian hands.
Now, there appears to be some new hope not only for more moderate forces in Austria, but for Europe as well. Going into next week’s elections for the European Parliament, the far right is also now facing a general election in Austria. And if there were any doubt, voters are being shown where the right- wing’s fundamental interests lie.
Trump and his former adviser Steve Bannon have both inserted themselves into the battle for the heart and soul of Europe, which is expected to figure in the elections for a new European Parliament. Bannon, who arrived this weekend at the five-star Hotel Bristol in Paris, told the French weekly Journal du Dimanche that the ticket headed by far-right French leader Marine Le Pen will “wind up by winning” the European Parliament vote, and that Europe was destined to a populist and reactionary future.
Strache and Le Pen have both become darlings of Putin. Strache’s Freedom Party has a formal cooperation pact with Putin’s United Russia party, while their personal relationship goes back more than a decade — and their ties have only deepened since then. Austria’s Freedom Party-backed foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, even invited Putin to her wedding, where he danced with the bride, serenaded by a Cossack choir. Strache and Kurz were among the guests.
The goal, at least of Strache and his Freedom Party, is to undermine and eventually break up a united Europe. Austria may well prove to be the first national litmus test of just how far voters are prepared to go in embracing or rejecting the totality of the far-right agenda, deeply polluted by ties with the Kremlin and now with direct evidence of such pollution.
All of this is a goal that the United States must resist at all costs, and indeed it’s becoming increasingly apparent Trump and Bannon should leave well enough alone.