A Russia Scandal Even Populists Couldn’t Stomach

In a sting video, the head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party is seen soliciting illegal donations from a Russian billionaire.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has dissolved the government and called for new elections.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has dissolved the government and called for new elections. (Leonhard Foeger / Reuters)

For the past 18 months, Sebastian Kurz, the 32-year-old chancellor of Austria, has led a coalition between his center-right People’s Party and Heinz-Christian Strache’s far-right Freedom Party. From its inception, his government was rocked by scandal: The police carried out an astonishing raid on an intelligence bureau that was in charge of spying on far-right extremists, and had in the past uncovered links between neo-Nazis and some of Strache’s colleagues. A state senator for the Freedom Party, reporters revealed, once belonged to a fraternity that openly glorified the Third Reich. (“At that point, the Jew Ben Gurion came into their midst,” go the lyrics for one of the fraternity’s songs, “and said: ‘Step on the gas, ye old Teutons, we’ll manage the seventh million.’”)

Even as these and other scandals came to dominate headlines in the country, Kurz declined to comment on most of them. His refusal to defend or condemn his coalition partner soon earned him a new nickname: Der Schweigekanzler, or the Silent Chancellor. But at a press conference he hastily convened on Saturday to address a sting video in which Strache was shown soliciting illegal donations, and promising government favors, Kurz claimed that “there were many situations in which I found it hard to tolerate this behavior.” His patience with the Freedom Party having finally come to an end, he dissolved the government and called for new elections.

The collapse of Austria’s government is reason for celebration. At no point in the past few decades had the government of a West European country damaged the basic rules and norms of liberal democracy more quickly, or more thoroughly. Anybody who cares about the survival of the separation of powers, or the freedom of the press, should rejoice that the Freedom Party is no longer in power.

Some European politicians have gone even further. István Ujhelyi, a member of the beleaguered opposition in Hungary, for example, told The Guardian that Strache was merely the “first domino” to fall: “Next up are Salvini, Le Pen, Orbán and the rest of Moscow’s far-right puppets.” But far from heralding a reversal of the populist tide, as Ujhelyi seems to believe, the fall of the Freedom Party may yet turn out to reveal populism’s astounding resilience.

A few months before ascending to the second most powerful position in the Austrian government, Heinz-Christian Strache traveled to a luxury villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza to persuade a Russian billionaire to make illicit donations to his far-right Freedom Party. “There are a few very affluent people,” he says in the video, which was shot in the summer of 2017, and released by two German publications on Friday, “who are contributing between 500,000 and 2 million euros.”

A woman asks for the names of past donors. “Our donors usually are idealists,” Strache explains as his colleague Johann Gudenus, who would go on to lead the Freedom Party’s faction in the Austrian parliament, translates his remarks. “Gaston Glock,” for example.

The Russians do not understand. “Glock, Glock,” Strache repeats, as Gudenus mimics a man taking aim with a handgun.

This video set off an earthquake that equally serious past scandals had failed to provoke. Over the past years, newspapers had, again and again, reported on the Freedom Party’s dirty dealings, its close connections to Russia, and the remarkable number of xenophobes and anti-Semites in its midst. Each time, the party’s propagandists waved such revelations off as fake news. But when voters could see, with their own eyes, how cavalierly the soon-to-be vice chancellor of the Austrian Republic promised a Russian billionaire lucrative state contracts, that defense no longer seemed plausible. It became impossible for Austrians—and for Kurz in particular—to brush off the deep hypocrisy of a party that rails against corruption while making dodgy deals with shady supporters.

In the wake of Kurz’s press conference, European commentators indulged in a rare moment of triumph. Across the continent, center-right leaders have been tempted to ally themselves with the far right. And while a few of them, such as Prime Minister Juha Sipilä of Finland, have mostly managed to co-opt their populist competitors by making them part of the government, far more have merely succeeded in emboldening the far right. Kurz’s travails can therefore serve as an urgently needed morality tale for politicians who hope to emulate his path to power: An alliance with the populist right can help you take office—but it could also lead to the sudden collapse of your government, and forevermore associate you with the stench of fraud.

Still, it would be naive to think that voters in Italy, France, or Hungary will see reason, and turn against their own populists because their Austrian allies have disgraced themselves. Across the border to Austria’s much bigger neighbor, for example, the leader of the Alternative for Germany was not especially perturbed by questions about his party’s legitimacy in the wake of the recent revelations: Strache’s behavior, Jörg Meuthen readily admitted on the country’s most closely watched political talk show, was utterly unacceptable; but, being “singular,” it had nothing to do with his own party. By the end of the program, Katarina Barley, a senior Social Democrat, worried that the attempt to tar Meuthen with Strache’s brush could ultimately strengthen him.

Demand for populism tends to outlast the popularity of particular populist leaders. In Italy, for example, Silvio Berlusconi dominated the political scene for two decades. But instead of returning to moderation when his support finally sank to the single digits, the political landscape radicalized: It is now dominated by Matteo Salvini, a xenophobic politician with close links to Austria’s Freedom Party.

Austrian voters had plenty of opportunity to understand the danger posed by the Freedom Party before the Russian video. And yet, its support has, so far, proved remarkably stable. Clearly, about a quarter of the Austrian public is comfortable with a party that openly attacks the rule of law and tolerates extreme anti-Semites in its midst.

According to the first poll taken since the video was published, the Freedom Party still retains the support of 18 percent of the electorate, down about 5 percent compared to polls taken before the scandal. That number could well go up as the party’s leaders settle on a counternarrative, and mobilize their large fan base on social media. After an uncharacteristic moment of silence, Strache has already signaled his determination to go the low road: In his first public comments since the publication of the video, he pinned the blame for his downfall on the infamous operative of an opposition party, who just so happens to be Jewish.

So yes, the revelations of the past days may well end Strache’s career. And yes, they certainly could inflict serious damage on the Freedom Party. But there is no reason to think that the spectacular self-immolation of the Austrian government hands defenders of liberal democracy anything more than a perilously short-lived victory.