It’s been reported that the ‘Russian oligarch’s niece’ at the centre of the corruption scandal which has brought down the Austrian government was actually a Bosnian student paid as part of an elaborate ‘sting’ operation.
But who was behind this plot and was it part of the ongoing campaign to discredit Russia?
From Brexit to the Gilets Jaunes protests in France, neocons and the pro-establishment faux-left cry ‘Russian collusion’ (or ‘Russian meddling’), in response to any political development they don’t like. So, it was no surprise to see the usual anti-Russian tropes being peddled when two German newspapers earlier this month reported on a secretly-recorded video showing Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache discussing illicit deals with an attractive long-haired young woman, wearing a black designer top, white shorts and high heels, who claimed to be be the niece of Russian tycoon Igor Makarov.
The video was shot on the holiday island of Ibiza in July 2017 and in it the ‘Russian’ woman, having allegedly plied Strache with drink and, according to one report, drugs too, offers to buy a 50% stake in leading Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung and switch its editorial line in favour of Strache’s nationalistic Freedom Party (FPO).
In return for favourable media coverage Strache offers the woman public contracts in Austria. “If she takes over the Krone newspaper three weeks before election and brings us to spot No. 1, then we can talk about anything,” the politician apparently says.
Even if he was intoxicated, Strache was acting like an ass – that no one denies. But the timing of the release of the video is surely significant. It came just days before the European Parliament elections and bolstered perfectly the dominant narrative that Russia interferes in domestic European politics to help boost the chances of right wing/nationalist parties across the continent in order to weaken the EU.
In this narrative, the rise of ‘populist’ parties is not due to dissatisfaction across the continent with pro-austerity, pro-status quo parties who have let their electorates down, but because ‘Putin the Puppet Master’ is stirring things up.
But here comes the twist. Russian oligarch Igor Makarov doesn’t have a niece. The woman who ‘honey-trapped’ Herr Strache was an impostor.
Kronen Zeitung quotes investigator Gert Schmidt who claims the woman who seduced Strache was in fact a Bosnian agricultural sciences student, who speaks four languages including ‘perfect Russian’ and who was paid between 6,000 to 7,000 euros to pose as a Russian femme fatale.
The villa where the recording (which reportedly was sold to the German newspapers for 600,000 euros) took place was already bugged and had been used for other ‘covert operations.’
So who was behind the sting?
Let’s consider the geopolitical context. We know that Austria’s friendly relations with Russia is a cause of great concern to hard-core Atlanticists and neocons. Vienna has long shown an admirable independence in foreign policy, which was particularly striking in the era of the late, great Bruno Kreisky, chancellor from 1970-1983.
In 2010, Wikileaks revealed that diplomats stationed at the US Embassy in Vienna were “frustrated and extremely disappointed” with Austria’s reluctance to blindly toe Washington’s line. Austrians were also seen as the “most Euroskeptical citizens” of any EU member state.
From a hard-core Atlanticist/neocon perspective things got even worse with the election of the current Austrian government in 2017. In 2016, the Freedom Party, the junior partners in the government which fell on Monday, signed a cooperation pact with Russia’s ruling United Russia Party.
In 2018, as a sign of how amicable relations were between Austria and Russia, the Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl invited Vladimir Putin to her wedding, when she danced with the Russian president. Again, this caused neocons to break out in rashes.
Furthermore, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose government lost a no-confidence vote on Monday, has been a vocal supporter of the Russian-led Nord-2 Stream natural gas pipeline, which US hawks want to sabotage in order to get Europe to be dependent on more expensive US LNG now ludicrously rebranded as ‘freedom gas.’
The stakes in this billion-dollar plus gas war are incredibly high.
But while the US certainly won’t be upset by the fall of Kurz’s administration, there is no proof as yet that the CIA was behind the ‘sting.’
Stracher himself has said the operation was “directed by intelligence agencies” but didn’t specify which ones. He did allude to a person, described by the BBC as ‘a controversial Israeli spin doctor’ called Tal Silberstein, who worked with the opposition Social Democrats in 2017, and German satirist Jan Bohmermann, who in April joked about the ‘FPO’s business friends in a Russian oligarch’s villa on Ibiza’ BEFORE the video was published.
Kurz has also said the ‘methods’ strongly remind him of Silberstein, saying “he used similar methods across the world.” The Israeli though, has vehemently denied involvement, calling the accusations against him “false and baseless”.
Bohmermann’s manager, by way of explaining his client’s comments, says he knew about the video but was not offered it.
The German newspaper Bild meanwhile has revealed that a Vienna-based Iranian-born lawyer called Ramin Mirfakhrai put Strache’s associate Gudenus in touch with the woman posing as the “Russian oligarch’s niece.” Mirfakhrai has admitted his involvement, describing the sting as a “civil society driven project in which investigative-journalistic approaches were taken.”
Of course it could just be that those behind the operation were concerned solely with ‘getting’ Strache and the FPO, and exposing corruption.
But you don’t have to be a supporter of the FPO’s right-wing politics (and I’m not), to question whether or not there is a wider agenda, which suits very nicely those out to prevent closer links between European countries and Russia.
The release of the video just before the European Parliament elections certainly makes you wonder.
By Neil Clark