Vienna (AFP) – A sensational video that appeared Friday has already led to the resignation of Austria’s Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and brought down the coalition government, with a turbulent campaign now in prospect for early elections.
Here’s what we know about the video, whose authenticity Strache has confirmed.
– What is in the video? –
Two German newspapers, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) and Der Spiegel, published extracts from the video, which is more than six hours long.
It was recorded in a luxury villa on the Balearic island of Ibiza in July 2017, just three months before Strache led his far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) into Austria’s last parliamentary elections.
Strache is seen on a sofa, enjoying liberal amounts of alcohol and Red Bull, while speaking to a woman who remains off camera.
She is introduced to him as “Alyona Makarova”, purportedly the niece of Russian oligarch Igor Makarov.
Johann Gudenus, one of Strache’s trusted aides, is also seen, serving as interpreter for part of the time.
– What does Strache say? –
The most damaging part is the discussion of how “Makarova” might take control of the Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s largest-circulation tabloid and use it to promote his campaign.
“If she takes over the Kronen Zeitung and is able to give us a push three weeks before the election, then we can talk about everything,” Strache says.
He expresses admiration for Austrian investor Heinrich Pecina, saying he “bought up all Hungarian media for Orban over the past 15 years and prepared them for him”.
Strache then spells out the terms of the quid pro quo, saying the woman should specify which sectors most interested her.
“Then we’ll take a look at what is most beneficial,” Strache says, notably saying that he would arrange for public construction tenders currently awarded to Austrian giant Strabag to be given to her instead.
It is made clear at several points that the woman’s money is of dubious provenance, with a man accompanying her saying it was not “actually entirely legal”, but Strache remains unfazed.
As for party financing, Strache appears to suggest a scheme to avoid legal scrutiny using an FPOe-linked foundation.
“The foundation is a non-profit one, it doesn’t have anything to do with the party. Then you don’t need to register anything with the Court of Audit,” he says.
– Who is ‘Alyona Makarova’? –
The woman’s true identity is a mystery. The FPOe say that she first made contact with Gudenus several months before the recording.
The woman reportedly said she wanted to buy some hunting grounds from Gudenus at five times its actual value.
She then displayed interest in wider investments in Austria and built up a rapport with Gudenus which led to the meeting in Ibiza.
Igor Makarov has told the Russian edition of Forbes magazine that he has no nieces.
At one point in the video Strache seems to realise he’s been set up — he says the woman’s toenails are too dirty to belong to a rich Russian woman.
But Gudenus reassures him it is not a trap.
– Where did the video come from? –
Like much else about the story, the circumstances in which the video was handed over are worthy of an airport thriller.
SZ journalists had to travel three hours to a petrol station before being led to a deserted hotel.
But the SZ and Spiegel say they will not reveal their sources and have no firm information on who organised or filmed the elaborate sting operation.
The Kremlin has denied having anything to do with the video.
Rumours of the tape’s existence had been circulating for months.
The editor of the Austrian Falter weekly said his paper had been approached by someone wanting to discuss the material a year ago, but the meeting never materialised.
German satirist Jan Boehmermann also seemed to be aware of the video’s contents, having alluded to them in a speech at an awards ceremony in April.
– How did Strache react? –
While apologising for what he himself called “stupid” and “irresponsible” behaviour, Strache has quickly moved to portray himself as the victim of a shadowy conspiracy.
He insisted that he had no further contact with “Makarova”, but according to fresh revelations in the German press, Gudenus remained in contact with her entourage and kept Strache informed.
In yet another bizarre twist, an associate apparently demanded that as a “goodwill gesture” the FPOe put out a press statement attacking Strabag owner Hans Peter Haselsteiner.
The statement duly appeared, with a cryptic line at the end: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”