Vienna (AFP) – Austria will hold snap elections next month after sensational hidden-camera footage, involving a mystery Russian woman, plunged the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) into a corruption scandal and brought the government down.
The recording led to the resignation of FPOe leader and vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and his party’s coalition with the centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) imploded.
More than three months after the video first emerged its origins are still shrouded in mystery, but a month before the September 29 parliamentary elections its reverberations are still coursing through Austrian politics.
– What is in the video? –
The video, more than six hours long, was recorded in an elaborate hidden-camera sting operation in a luxury villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza in July 2017, three months before Austria’s last parliamentary elections.
In the extracts published so far, 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 — who has told the Russian edition of Forbes magazine that he has no nieces.
Strache’s party colleague and trusted aide Johann Gudenus and Gudenus’s wife are also present.
“Makarova” — whose real identity remains unknown — is accompanied by a male associate, who also remains off camera.
The most damning segment involves Strache discussing how “Makarova” might take control of the Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s largest-circulation tabloid, and use it to help the FPOe’s campaign.
In return, Strache says he would arrange for public construction tenders currently awarded to Austrian giant Strabag to be given to her instead.
This despite the fact “Makarova” repeatedly makes clear that her fortune derives from dubious sources.
Strache also appears to suggest a scheme through which political donations could avoid legal scrutiny by using an FPOe-linked foundation.
– Where did the video come from? –
Two German newspapers, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) and Der Spiegel, published the extracts from the video on May 17 but said they could not reveal their sources.
A Vienna-based lawyer Ramin Mirfakhrai later said he had been involved in setting up the meetings with Gudenus that led to the fateful recording in Ibiza.
Austrian press reports said Mirfakhrai’s office was raided as part of an investigation into the possible “illegal use of recording equipment” and “forgery of a protected category of documents”.
An Austrian detective and two other “security experts” were also involved in the set-up, according to local media.
The Die Presse daily reported that other incriminating material on Strache had previously been offered for sale to the FPOe’s political rivals, but SZ and Der Spiegel say they did not pay for the material they received.
– What was the fallout? –
The scandal set off a chain of unprecedented events, starting with Strache’s resignation as party leader and vice-chancellor.
Then OeVP chancellor Sebastian Kurz sacked FPOe interior minister Herbert Kickl, arguing he could not oversee any possible investigation into his own party’s wrongdoing, which prompted a mass walkout of FPOe ministers.
Kurz was himself then thrown out of office after the FPOe joined the centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe) in supporting a no-confidence motion against him, a first for modern Austria.
A technocratic government then took office led by Austria’s first female chancellor, Brigitte Bierlein.
Austrian prosecutors have launched investigations into possible illicit donations to political parties.
Strache and Gudenus have both lodged legal complaints against those who made the video in Austria, with Strache filing another lawsuit in Germany relating to the video’s publication.