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18 May, 2019 09:44

Austrian VC caught discussing alleged shady deals, and pundits cry 'Russia took over the country'

Austrian VC caught discussing alleged shady deals, and pundits cry 'Russia took over the country'

Austria's ruling coalition party is under fire after a leaked video showed the vice chancellor discussing alleged quid pro quo arrangements with a "Russian oligarch niece" … and some pundits quickly had their Russiagate meltdowns.

The scandal rocked the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) on Friday after two German publications, Spiegel and Suddeutsche Zeitung, released exposes of a video leaked to them by an unnamed party. The video shows a July 2017 meeting at an Ibiza villa, where Heinz-Christian Strache, the party leader and vice chancellor of Austria, and Johann Gudenus, Strache's protégé and senior figure in the FPO, discuss alleged shady deals with a woman identified as Alena Makarova by Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

The conversations reportedly lasted for hours. One of the options "discussed" there was that the mysterious woman "and her companion" would buy a majority share in Austria's major tabloid – Kronen Zeitung – and use it to prop up FPO's bid in the October 2017 national election.

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The FPO narrowly came in third place and became a junior partner in the current ruling coalition. In exchange, the politicians said the woman's construction business could get government contracts once the party is in power. The politicians also discussed alleged circumventing of Austria's transparency laws for political donations by funneling money through a charity.

The scandal led to opposition calls for the two politicians implicated to resign and even for the coalition to break up, which could lead to a snap election. On Saturday, Strache confirmed the meeting but insisted the information was taken out of context. He still announced his resignation as FPO chief and vice chancellor not to damage the ruling coalition. Gudenus did the same, giving up his mandate as a member of the Austrian Parliament. 

That said, some pundits already had their usual Russiagate meltdowns, alleging the tape proves that the FPO was bought and paid-for by Moscow, which conspired with the right-wing party to destroy Austria's freedom of the press. The pièce de résistance in this claim is that the woman Strache and Gudenus talked with is described as a "suspected Russian oligarch niece."

The German outlets indeed say the woman spoke Russian and English. This leaves a pretty large field of options for who she might be besides a relative of a Kremlin-controlled businessman, through whom the Russian government may have wanted to gain influence in Austria.

Strache himself said on Saturday the woman was a Russian-speaking Latvian national, who told Gudenus that she and her daughter wanted to move to Vienna to secure the meeting. He added they were an obvious plant, considering how the situation played out.

Notably, Der Spiegel article itself says that the video was "clearly done as a trap" for the FPO politicians. The scandal conveniently erupted days before the European Parliament election in Austria and may understandably hurt the FPO’s performance.

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Anyway, if the "niece" was a Russian government agent, it doesn't seem that she managed to get Strache and Gudenus on board with some plan to subvert the election. At least the reports say no agreements were reached at the meeting. The Kronen Zeitung tabloid did partially change ownership after the discussion, but it happened in autumn 2018 and the buyer was Austrian entrepreneur Rene Benko, who told Spiegel the deal was purely commercial.

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