Austria far-right leader under fire over filmed contract scandal

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Heinz-Christian Strache

Heinz-Christian Strache, Austria’s vice chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), has been filmed apparently discussing state contracts to an individual posing as a representative of a Russian oligarch in return for political backing.

The footage, which was published by two German newspapers on Friday, prompted opposition calls for Strache to resign and threw the country’s ruling government coalition into crisis.

Strache occupies the second-highest position in government and his party is part of the ruling coalition with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s centre-right People’s Party (OVP), which came to power in 2017 with a hard-line on immigration similar to that of the FPO.

Strache was purportedly filmed talking about the contracts with a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch in the Spanish island of Ibiza in July 2017, months before parliamentary elections, newspapers Der Spiegel and Sueddeutsche Zeitung said.

In the covert video, Strache and party colleague Johann Gudenus are heard telling the unnamed woman she can expect lucrative construction contracts if she buys an Austrian newspaper and supports the FPO.

According to the two newspapers, the video spanned some six hours of drink-fuelled conversation in a villa. Aside from discussing possible investments in Austria, including the purchase of influential tabloid newspaper Kronen Zeitung, Strache also appears to suggest ways of funneling money to his party via an unconnected foundation to circumvent Austrian rules on political donations.

‘End this nightmare’

There was no immediate comment by Strache on the video, whose authenticity could not be independently verified. The German newspapers, which did not reveal how they obtained it, said the footage was authenticated by a forensic video expert.

“It’s time to end this nightmare,” the head of Austria’s Social Democratic Party, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, said after the reports. “Strache and Gudenus must step down today.”

She urged Kurz to take responsibility for his government allies: “He chose to enter into this coalition.”

The FPO became junior partner in a coalition with Kurz’s conservatives in December 2017 after winning 26 percent of the votes in the October elections.

Kurz, who called a crisis meeting late on Friday, is reportedly planning to issue a statement on the case on Saturday.

Werner Kogler, a leading member of Austria’s opposition Green Party, also urged Kurz to dissolve the coalition “or he himself will become untenable”.

There is no indication that any of the discussed Russian investments took place before or after the parliamentary elections.

Vienna prosecutors said they would study the reports and decide whether there was sufficient cause to open an investigation, a spokeswoman for the prosecutors said.

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