On Monday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was ousted in a no-confidence vote backed by the Social Democrats and Herr Kurz’s former coalition-partners, the far-right Freedom Party. During a parliamentary debate, Freedom Party members had accused Herr Kurz of attempting to use the recent “Ibiza scandal” to consolidate his power.
Given the political toxicity of the Ibiza scandal, what else could he have done?
All of this is precipitated by the publication of a video on May 17th on the websites of Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung which showed Freedom Party leader and Austrian Vice Chancellor Hans-Christian Strache and his parliamentary leader Johann Gudenus talking to an unidentified woman, who claimed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch. They discuss prospects for investment in Austria. The woman (who later turned out to be a Bosnian student who had been paid between €6,000 and €7,000 for her performance in the video) expresses an interest in acquiring the country’s largest-circulating tabloid, Kronen Zeitung. Herr Strache responds that, after changes in the newspaper’s staff, it could adopt a more positive line in relation to the Freedom Party. He idealizes a situation wherein the government might consolidate political control over Austria’s media-space in a manner similar to in Hungary. He also suggests to the woman that she might be able to gain access to artificially inflated state-contracts.
Strache resigned both as Vice Chancellor and as leader of the Freedom Party a day after the video was published. The interior minister, Herbert Kickl, also a Freedom Party member, was fired 2 days later, having been accused by Kurz of failing to demonstrate “the required sensibility in dealing with the accusations.” Although Kurz himself was not implicated in the scandal, he has nonetheless become a victim of the political recriminations which have crippled his coalition government since the scandal broke.
So who launched this political sting-operation, and why?
The original culprit in this affair may be the former interior minister, Herbert Kickl. Austria’s state-security apparatus may very well have decided that he had to be removed. In February 2018, shortly after the Freedom Party joined the government and Kickl became interior minister, Sybille Geissler, head of the anti-extremism unit of the BVT (Austria’s domestic intelligence agency), was asked by a senior interior ministry official to hand over the names of informants who had infiltrated far-right circles. She refused. Weeks later, armed police showed up at her office, and confiscated domestic files, classified information shared by foreign intelligence services, and the Neptune software used to encrypt classified exchanges.
Subsequently, Austria gradually found itself being frozen out of intelligence-sharing. Geissler attended international meetings wherein she gradually realized that several sessions had already taken place without her. On enquiring as to why this had happened, she was told by employees of other nations’ intelligence-services that they had not been allowed to make contact with her. A colleague was disinvited to an international conference on the far-right “Generation Identity” movement only 2 hours before he was scheduled to board his plane. The Finnish intelligence service sent a note to the Club of Bern, the informal forum for European national intelligence agencies, which was marked “Except Austria.”
Meanwhile, there was significant political pressure placed on members of Austria’s national security apparatus. Peter Gridling, head of the BVT, was suspended (later re-instated), and Geissler was advised to either take early retirement or transfer to another department. Austrian courts subsequently ruled that 9 of the 10 police-raids launched against the offices of Austria’s security-apparatus in February 2018 were illegal.
Well, attempting to strong-arm the state-security apparatus like that is likely to have precisely the same outcome in any country in the industrial world. Having taken control of the interior ministry, the Freedom Party seems to have been genuinely naïve in its over-reach for power. National security organizations exist for the purpose of intelligence-gathering, and that remit necessarily includes intelligence-sharing with allies. The BVT found itself in a scenario wherein, owing to Austria’s domestic political situation, it was being prevented from effectively performing its core-functions.
Really, what did Kickl expect would happen next?
The Ibiza sting-operation seems like a logical, and inevitable, response to Kickl’s attempts to overstep his ministerial authority. He had placed the BVT’s senior leadership in a position wherein it had no choice but to decide that he had to go.
More broadly, this affair demonstrates a fundamental weakness at the heart of Austria’s domestic politics which has persisted throughout the entire post-war period. In this regard, a comparison with Germany is appropriate. In post-war Germany, de-nazification was a root-and-branch process. Germany endured decades of painful soul-searching in an attempt to cognitively process the collective crime of Nazism. Germany’s intelligentsia and academic elite spent the next 30 years repeatedly, tortuously, bringing the historical questions surrounding Nazism up. There was a prolonged and agonizing process of self-diagnosis.
In Austria, that never happened – the great crimes of Austria’s Nazi-epoch history were largely swept under the rug. That is partially because, whereas Germany has traditionally had a conflict-model of political discourse rooted in the German enlightenment and secularized Lutheranism, Catholic Austria has traditionally tended toward a consensus-model of political discourse which inevitably renders hard questions into taboos. The comparative political “respectability” of the far-right in Austria in recent decades is a symptom of this consensus-model. It’s difficult to imagine Austria ever not being a politically dysfunctional nation-state, given that it never cleaned house after the war. 70 years later, the unspoken pathologies by now run far too deep.