Austria's far-right seals pact with Russia
A trip by the top leadership of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) to Moscow, to sign a five-year working agreement with the United Russia party of Russian president Vladimir Putin, has sparked a political firestorm back home.
The pact coincides with an extension of EU sanctions against Russia over its role in the Ukraine conflict, and widespread Western criticism of its support for Syrian forces as they ruthlessly retake the country’s northern city of Aleppo following years of civil war.
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The agreement was signed by FPOe head Heinz-Christian Strache and Sergei Zheleznyak, a deputy to the United Russia’s general secretary, who is on the EU and US sanctions list over Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Strache’s fellow FPOe delegates included Norbert Hofer who failed in his recent bid to become president of Austria and Johann Gudenus, deputy mayor of Vienna.
Among the points outlined in the document, a copy of which was published by Austrian journalist Claus Pandi, were mutual non-interference, the promotion of dialogue and economic development and “the raising of younger generations in the spirit of patriotism and work enjoyment.”
Within hours of the news from Moscow, including a smiling selfie video of the FPOe delegation posing on snow-bedecked Red Square, the deluge of political criticism at home began.
Peter Kaiser, head of the ruling Social Democrats (SPOe) party in Carinthia, said the reference to youth education in the spirit of patriotism and work enjoyment made “a mockery of modern Austria”, according to ORF radio. National SPOe manager Georg Niedermuehlbichler suggested “the Moscow cold must have got to their heads”.
Vice-chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, head of the center-right People’s Party (OeVP), the SPOe’s governing coalition partner, said the timing was “ not sensible” and that the trip was a “gross misstep”.
OeVP Secretary-General Werner Amon called the visit “a political wrong-way drive up a one-way street to Red Square”.
There were even rumblings of discontent from within the FPOe itself. The party’s Upper Austria chief said in an interview with Kurier newspaper that “exaggerated celebratory statements from abroad damage us”.
He added that “closeness” to EU-critical nationalist parties such as the AfD in Germany and National Front in France could “scare away some people”, appearing to refer to FPOe voters.
Austrian president-elect Alexander van der Bellen didn’t wish to comment “because he is not yet president”, his spokesperson Reinhard Pickl-Herk told EUobserver.
Asked for a response to the flood of criticism, FPOe party spokesperson Martin Glier pointed EUobserver on Tuesday morning to a live-streamed press conference that was about to start featuring FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache and three of the trip participants.
In a press conference in Vienna on Tuesday, Strache said he was “amused and amazed” by the response of media and politicians to what he termed a success in a "healthy foreign policy."
Strache suggested that the visit and working agreement illustrated the FPOe’s desire to leverage Austria’s neutrality, as a “peace mediator”, bringing powerful countries such as the United States and Russia closer together again.
He even raised the possibility of a meeting in Vienna between Russian president Vladimir Putin and US president Donald Trump, whom he hailed as visionary over his acknowledgment that the US should “not be the world’s policeman”.
An Austrian-facilitated US-Russian rapprochement would, Strache argued, help bring about an end to conflict in Syria and Ukraine. So, he added, would the lifting of the “damaging and useless” US-EU sanctions against Russia.
The FPOe leaders cast Russia as a crucial partner in the fight against Islamist foes who have “declared war” and suggested that the trip and resulting agreement could help establish a more united front in the ongoing war on terror.
Where the trip certainly won’t help, though, is in terms of support for the FPOe, political analyst Peter Filzmaier opined to EUobserver: “It isn’t effective in increasing the number of FPOe voters. That’s not why they vote for the FPOe.”
He observed that trips abroad by FPOe presidential candidate Hofer to visit pro-Russia EU sceptics such as Czech president Milos Zeman had no positive impact on his ratings.
But he explained that "the FPOe was for many years politically isolated. Now that they have gained more support they are attempting to shake off pariah status by cultivating as many international appearances as they can. It’s also a prestige thing.”
Filzmaier also pointed out that as it has gained power – leading national opinion polls for more than a year - the FPOe has sought to win over support from powerful business, trade and economic players in Austria, who are “always against sanctions”.
One thing is clear, the expert concluded: “Austria and Russia are part of the same paradoxical international alliance of nationalist parties.”