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Elections in Austria: Toss-up for Ukraine

Author : Georgiy Kuhaleyshvili

On September 29, early parliamentary elections were held in Austria
13:21, 1 October 2019

Reuters

On September 29, early parliamentary elections were held in Austria. Four months have already passed since the resignation of the Chancellor and Sebastian Kurz, the leader of the Austrian People's Party, against the backdrop of a political crisis. In May, the video leaked to the network of a conversation between Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and his ally from Johannes Gudenus, the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, with spectacular blonde Aliona Makarova in Ibiza, who introduced herself as the niece of the Russian oligarch and owner of Itera oil company Igor Makarov, close to Putin. In the summer of 2017, Strache and Gudenus promised to help her buy land in Austria, part of the shares of the Kronen Zeitung publication and to assist in transferring state orders in the construction sector to her company in exchange for providing the Austrian Freedom Party with foreign funding through a shadow scheme through a non-governmental organization.

The Austrian Freedom Party ranked the third in the October 2017 parliamentary elections and entered into a coalition agreement with the Austrian People's Party. After the details of Ibizahate surfaced, Strache and Kurz resigned, the ruling coalition broke up and early parliamentary elections were announced. Former President of the Austrian Constitutional Court Brigitte Birline is temporary at the post of Chancellor. Ukraine is closely following the change of power in Austria since there is no consensus in the party circles of this European country about the policy of anti-Russian sanctions of the West. Austria is the subject of interests of Russia, the United States, and the European Union, which bet on competing for political forces within the country.

Related: Austria launches route to Poland, which provides train transfer to Ukraine

The far-right challenge to Ukraine

The Austrian far-right has long been entrenched in the image of an agent of Kremlin's influence in the European Union. Ibizahate has shed light on the undercover games of the Austrian Freedom Party with the Russian side. In 2016, the Austrian Freedom Party entered into a cooperation agreement with the ruling Russian party, United Russia. Gudenus is the ideologist of the rapprochement between Russia and the EU. In Ibiza, drunken Strache admitted to Makarova that he was interested in an alliance between Austria and Russia, where "normal people" still remained, and not with the European Union. During his 19-month stay in power, Strache lobbied for the lifting of anti-Russian sanctions. In June last year, Strache said that it was time for the EU to lift sanctions and normalize relations with Russia.

The Austrian Freedom Party supports Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian Crimea, and one of its members, Detlef Wimmer, the mayor of Linz, visited the forum in Yalta last year. In September 2018, one of the Austrian Freedom Party, then Minister of the Interior of Austria Herbert Kickl, ordered the police to search the premises of the BVT intelligence service. Presumably, the information seized by law enforcement officers could have been transmitted by Russian special services that are actively working in Austria. At the end of last year, a spy scandal caused the detention of a retired colonel of the Austrian army, who from the beginning of the 90s worked as an informant for the Russian special services and received 300 thousand euros from them.

 

It would seem that Ibizahate should have buried the chances of the Austrian Freedom Party to return to big politics. The Ukrainian authorities could breathe a sigh of relief after Russia's loss of an active lobbyist for the lifting of sanctions in the EU. However, the Austrian far-right did not sit idly by but carried out a kind of “rehabilitation” of their party. n mid-September, the former Minister of Transport, Norbert Hofer, was elected to the post of head of the Austrian Freedom Party, who in 2016 ran for president of Austria. Hofer develops the image of a moderate politician, he is opposed to Kickl and jokingly called the "friendly face" of the Austrian Freedom Party.

However, Hofer was never a liberal. In his views, he is a more reactionary Euro-skeptic than Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban or former Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. During the 2016 presidential campaign, he opposed the signing of an agreement on a free trade area between the EU and the USA, supported the referendum on the expediency of Austria's membership in the EU, in case of increased powers of the European Commission and other supranational bodies. Hofer against the admission of refugees, Turkey’s accession to the EU, supports the tightening of the migration regime, the deportation of Muslims, the inclusion in Austria of the Italian border region of South Tyrol, where the German-speaking population lives.

Hofer’s election as the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party does not affect the attitude of this political force to Ukraine. Hofer considers the anti-Russian sanctions to be useless and promised to assist in lifting them if he came to power in 2016. He also acknowledged the results of the pseudo-referendum in Crimea and called for recognition of it as Russian territory. He believes that relations with Russia and the USA are equally important for Austria and it can become a bridge in the relations of these states. He sees Austria as a regional center of power, able to consolidate the countries of the former Austro-Hungary (Central-Eastern Europe and part of the Balkans) as a counterweight to the hegemony of Germany and France in the EU. Hofer is beneficial for Russia in the chair of the vice-chancellor or the minister of transport, as it can help contribute to the construction of the Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline, which is planned to be connected to the gas distribution hub in the Austrian city of Baumgarten.

Hofer's task is to again agree on a coalition with the Austrian People's Party after an early parliamentary election. If after Ibizahate, the ratings of the Austrian Freedom Party fell from 26% to 18%, now 20% of voters are ready to support it. In its popularity, it is in third place after the Austrian People's Party and the Social Democrats. Enough Austrians do not see another alternative that can defend the tightening of the migration regime, and positively assess the activities of the Kurtz government in an alliance with the far-right.

Related: Austrian case casts doubt on Pompeo’s defence of US extradition policy

Kurz’s power struggle

Ibizahate rebounded the career of a successful young politician. After all, a leader is often judged by his partners. In May, Kurz and President Alexander van der Bellen made excuses for Strache’s trick in Ibiza. Unlike former partners from the Austrian Freedom Party, Kurz has a more moderate stance and maintains a balance in relations with the EU, the US, and Russia. During his tenure as Chancellor and Minister of Foreign Affairs, he avoided frontal attacks with the European Commission on the settlement of the migration crisis, reached an agreement with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the advisability of returning illegal immigrants to countries of destination illegally moving across the EU, on strengthening the protection of the EU's external borders. Kurz did not cause Washington’s antipathy. Like US President Donald Trump, he advocates strengthening the protection of external borders from the influx of illegal immigrants. Richard Grenell, the US ambassador to Germany, flattered about him.

Related: New Austrian Ambassador Gernot Pfandler arrives in Ukraine

Unlike Strache and Hofer, Kurz is in no hurry to come closer to Russia. He considers the dialogue with Russia to be important, but at the same time, does not cancel anti-Russian sanctions. As Austrian Foreign Minister, Kurz proposed gradually mitigating restrictive measures as Russia implements the Minsk agreements. However, later he refrained from this idea. In early May, even before the inauguration of President Volodymyr Zelensky, they had a telephone conversation with Kurz. He said that Ukraine remains an important partner for Austria and the EU, promised to support the implementation of reforms and supported the implementation of the Minsk agreements, the territorial integrity of our country. Zelensky and Kurz are somewhat similar. Both are positioned as advanced politicians of the new formation, gravitating to innovation. Perhaps if Kurz regains power in Austria, and Zelensky fulfills an election promise and lifts a moratorium on the sale of land, simplifies the conditions for doing business in Ukraine for foreigners, it is possible to intensify the dialogue in the field of investment cooperation. Last year, a delegation of 40 Austrian entrepreneurs visited Ukraine who expressed interest in developing business in various sectors of the economy, including agriculture and the pharmaceutical industry.

Currently, the Austrian People's Party is supported by 34% of voters. The party leads the race, despite the fact that its rating has slipped over the past few months. In May, 38% of Austrians supported Kurz despite the political scandal. In August, Kurz did not rule out the possibility of creating a coalition with the Austrian Freedom Party again. Kurz and ultranationalists have a similar attitude towards migration. Former Chancellor believes that migration has changed a lot of society and the Austrian identity must be maintained. It is not known how the relationship between young politician Kurtz and the shark Hofer will develop. Disagreements may arise between the two charismatic leaders in Austrian foreign policy. However, 28% of Austrians prefer the coalition of the Austrian People's Party and the Austrian Freedom Party.

Options for the opposition

As an alternative, a coalition between the Austrian People's Party and the Social Democratic Party of Austria is possible. However, Kurz already abandoned such an alliance two years ago due to disagreements in the sphere of domestic politics. The number of supporters of the Social Democrats fell from 27% to 22%. They focus on the middle class and promise to cut taxes and set a minimum wage of 1,700 euros. When the Social Democrats were in power, they supported a policy of anti-Russian sanctions. Pamela Randy-Wagner, leader of the Social Democrats, believes that in order to mitigate sanctions, Russia should implement the Minsk agreements and stop killing people in eastern Ukraine.

Reuters

Kurz may also try to agree on a coalition with the liberal and environmental parties Austrian Greens, which are supported by 12% of the electorate, New Austria (NEOS) - 8%. These parties are oriented towards rapprochement with the EU, advocate for tax and pension reform, protection of the environment and climate, development of free trade, and against emigration of highly skilled workers. Beate Meinle-Reisinger, the chairman of the New Austria party, supports EU sanctions against Russia and calls for an immediate end to violence in eastern Ukraine and the illegal occupation of Crimea. Werner Kogler, the press secretary of the Austrian Green Party, believes that sanctions are necessary until Russia proceeds to implement the Minsk agreements. The politician allows the gradual abolition of restrictive measures. Although the option of a coalition of the "Austrian People's Party" with the Social Democrats or liberals and greens is supported by 7% of the citizens.

Related: Ukraine's Security Service cancels entry ban for Austrian reporter Wehrschütz

To some extent, Ibizahate meets the interests of the Austrian opposition. The political scandal torpedoed the coalition of the Austrian People’s Party and the Austrian Freedom Party. The Social Democratic Party of Austria and other opposition forces now have a chance to try to join the coalition in parliament after the early parliamentary elections. There is a version that Strache meeting was a specially arranged trap. The customer of the video is unknown, but he clearly needed some dirt on Strache. It is possible that this could be a statement in the interests of the opposition. After all, oligarch Makarov denied that he had a niece, because he was the only child in the family, and the Kremlin did not make sense to leave high and dry its own partner Strache.

Related: Austria supports anti-Russian sanctions, as Russia violated international law, - Kneissl

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