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20 May, 2019 17:25

'Reminds of Israeli political strategist Tal Silberstein' - Austrian Chancellor on tape scandal

'Reminds of Israeli political strategist Tal Silberstein' - Austrian Chancellor on tape scandal

Following Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache’s resignation amid a corruption scandal, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has hinted that Israeli political strategist Tal Silberstein may have orchestrated the debacle.

Strache resigned on Saturday, one day after a video surfaced in German outlets showing the vice-chancellor discussing a quid-pro-quo agreement with a woman presented by the media as a niece of a Russian oligarch, filmed in Ibiza in 2017. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz quickly condemned Strache’s alleged misdeeds, and called for snap elections.

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However, both Strache – who headed Austria’s Freedom Party, the junior coalition partner to Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party – and Kurz alleged dirty tricks were afoot.

Strache called the surreptitiously recorded tape a “targeted political assassination,” and Kurz compared the scandal to a “dirty campaign” waged against him in 2017 by Austria’s Social Democrats, via political adviser Tal Silberstein.

Speaking to German tabloid Bild on Sunday, Kurz again dropped Silberstein’s name.

“Concerning the methods, this strongly reminds me of Tal Silberstein, the campaign aide of the SPÖ (Social Democrats) in 2017,” Kurz said. “He used similar methods all across the world.”

Similar Methods

Kurz’s first run-in with Silberstein occurred during Austria’s general election two years ago. Well on track to becoming Austria’s youngest-ever leader at the time, Kurz was hit with allegations that his supporters ran websites churning out racist content and conspiracy theories. As well as the sites purporting to be from his supporters, another hit-site called “The Truth About Sebastian Kurz” alleged that the center-right leader was secretly working in the service of billionaire liberal financier George Soros.

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Breaking two weeks before the country went to the polls, the scandal could have dealt damage to Kurz’ election bid, until it emerged that the websites were the work of Silberstein, paid €400,000 ($447,000) to mastermind then-chancellor Christian Kern’s re-election bid.

Silberstein’s work in Austria began in 2002, where he has repeatedly lent his expertise to the Social Democrats. However, his operation is global. Silberstein has advised former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, as well as Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine.

Silberstein has also worked for a raft of Romanian politicians, and represented forestry company Schweighofer GmbH, accused of illegal logging in Eastern Europe.

The 2005 documentary ‘Our Brand is Crisis’ – which focused on the work of foreign political consultants in Bolivia’s 2002 election – featured an appearance from Silberstein. In the documentary, the Israeli consultant is caught on camera telling candidate Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada to “start negative campaigns” against his rival.

“We have to make him from clean to a dirty candidate, that’s our task,” he said.

Sánchez de Lozada went on to win the campaign, but fled to the US from genocide charges in 2003, after his military massacred 60 protesters that October.

Still active

Silberstein hit back at Kurz’s implication on Monday, calling the allegations against him ‘false and unfounded,” and threatened legal action in response.

However, the veteran political consultant is no stranger to legal action himself, having been pursued in relation to a corruption case in Romania in 2017, and arrested for alleged involvement in a bribery scandal in his native Israel later that year.

Still, Silberstein remains active internationally.  

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Curiously, he popped up in Ukraine this week shortly after the President-elect Volodymyr Zelensky was sworn in. Local media reported that the notorious expert was there to consult the former President Petro Poroshenko, whose party reckons to win the upcoming parliamentary elections this year.

Regardless of Silberstein’s alleged involvement in the Austrian video scandal, the fallout could be extremely damaging for Kurz and the European right, Vienna-based political scientist Heinz Gaertner told RT.

“No matter what the intention of this video was, it did damage to the Freedom Party, it did damage to the right wing parties in Europe and particularly in Austria as well,”  he said.

“Everyone in the party is distancing (themselves) from Strache. Even in the right wing parties in Europe they say ‘That is not what we want for our parties.’ It will be a negative example for politicians for some time to come.”

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