Austria's Far-right Vice-chancellor Resigns Over Video Scandal

Leaked video purportedly shows Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of Austria's Freedom Party, trying to make corrupt deals and bragging of 'Israeli friends' with close ties to Netanyahu

Screenshot showing Austrian vice-Chancellor Hans-Christian Strache in leaked video.
Screenshot/Der Spiegel video

Austria’s vice-chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, resigned Saturday following the release of a video showing him attempting to make corrupt deals with a woman pretending to be representative of a Russian oligarch. The resignation is sending Austria to snap elections, the news agency APA reported.

The video, which was revealed as part of an investigation that was published over the weekend by German newspapers Suddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel, documented several hours of Strache speaking to a woman who posed as a niece of a Russian oligarch.

The video documenting the meeting

Strache can be heard offering to use his connections throughout the world, including to "Israeli friends." The Austrian politician claimed those friends had close ties to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "They have problems with leftists there," he added.

>> Read more: The Austrian embrace: How Kurz's far-right government is wooing Israel to end boycott of Freedom Party ■ Should we talk to Austria's anti-Semitic far right? | Opinion ■ As the far right targets Muslims, Austria's response Is an ugly, complicit silence | Opinion

"I acted like a drunk teenager. That was the behavior of a macho drunk. I was stupid, I must say," Strache said.

He called the incident "a dirty campaign in the style of [Tal] Silberstein," referring to the Israeli political adviser who worked with Austria's Social Democratic party led by former Chancellor Christian Kern.

The woman presented herself as Alyona Makarova and claimed to be the niece of Igor Makarov, a Russian oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to German media, the woman was an impersonator.

The meeting, documented with a hidden camera, took place in July 2017 on the Spanish island of Ibiza, three months before the Austrian parliamentary elections. On the agenda: Hundreds of millions of euros in campaign support for Strache in return for government contracts and the "removal of barriers" in Austria if he were to be elected.

Johann Gudenus, former deputy mayor of Vienna and fellow Freedom Party member, was also present at the meeting.

At this point, it is unknown who is behind the affair or who set the trap for Strache and documented it. The documentation was given to Der Spiegel, and the German newspaper said that they did not pay for the materials nor do they know who is behind it, but they have verified the authenticity of the video.

The elections took place in December 2017 and Strache's party had a good showing, after which they entered the coalition headed by Sebastian Kurz, and Strache was appointed as vice-chancellor.

Strache has presented himself in recent years as someone who has come to clean up corrupt Austrian politics – yet the video shows him acting quite the opposite. During the discussion, the woman emphasized that the money being offered was not strictly legal, but Strache did not get up and leave. Instead, he appeared excited to hear the details of the deal.

Strache's resignation absolves Israel from the dilemma it faced regarding diplomatic ties with him. Given his party's anti-Semitic roots and the fact that to this day some of the party's members have not denounced anti-Semitism, Vienna's Jewish community and Israel have officially boycotted the party.

For his part, Strache attempted to strengthen ties with Israel, visited Yad Vashem, voiced support for moving the Austrian embassy to Jerusalem, and met with Israeli politicians, including Likud lawmaker Yehuda Glick.

According to the report, the woman said that she wants to invest hundreds of millions of euros in Austria and asked to know if they could cooperate in a manner that would help both the oligarch and Strache's party benefit from the deal.

In the video, Strache can heard saying that the woman is "hot." He also gossiped about Austrian politics, and mentioned the sexual orientation of one official and the cocaine use of another.  

The woman in the video offered to take over the Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung in order to use it as a propaganda tool to promote Strache and his party during election campaigns. Strache appeared delighted by the prospect, and boasted that he would fire certain journalists and appoint others in their place, calling journalists "the prostitutes of the world." Another possibility the two discussed was to donate money to the party.

Suddeutsche Zeitung reported that at the end of the six-hour meeting, Strache and the woman signed a deal.