The problem of realising the significant cooperation potential between Austria and Russia in the economic and investment fields (the gas energy sector, transcontinental transport links, and the high-tech segment of engineering) is looming large not just for business people, but for politicians as well.
And this problem is being created by the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU. Vienna is starting to recognise both the political ineffectiveness of these sanctions and the economic damage they are inflicting. But Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern’s (Social Democratic Party) attempt in February to link a hypothetical «partial lifting» (?) of sanctions against Russia with «new ways to put leverage on President Vladimir Putin» (?) to implement the Minsk Agreement is frustrating any kind of solution to the problem. Moscow has repeatedly stressed that Russia is not a party to the Minsk agreement. And as for attempts to put leverage on the Kremlin, then these can only lead to the opposite result.
Yet there is a political force gaining influence in Austria whose representatives are separating the wheat from the chaff. I am referring to the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which currently holds 38 of the 183 seats in the National Council (parliament). In terms of the number of seats, FPÖ is second only to the parties of the ruling coalition – the Social Democratic Party and the People’s Party (52 seats and 51 seats respectively).
In April 2016, two National Council deputies from the Freedom Party of Austria, Axel Kassegger and Barbara Rosenkranz, were among the few European politicians who took part in the Yalta International Economic Forum in Crimea despite resistance from Kiev. «Lost trust needs to be restored and I want to be more actively involved in this process. This is one of the reasons for my trip to Yalta», said Axel Kassegger at the time.
On 19 December 2016, an FPÖ delegation headed by the party’s chairman, Heinz-Christian Strache, signed a cooperation agreement in Moscow with the United Russia party outlining plans for Russia and Austria to share experiences in economic, trade and investment related areas. Welcoming the signing of the inter-party agreement in Moscow, Norbert Hofer, one of the Freedom Party’s leading politicians and a presidential candidate in Austria’s 2016 elections, stressed: «There is no doubt that the Freedom Party, as possibly the future ruling party of Austria, must make every effort to maintain good relations with Russia. The agreement is aimed at strengthening ties, which will have a positive impact on the Austrian economy in the future.» It is worth bearing in mind that nearly 50,000 jobs in Austria depend on the state of economic ties with Russia.
On 2 April 2017, an FPÖ delegation from Linz took part in the international forum «Cooperation instead of Confrontation: putting an end to the sanctions against Russia» held in the German town of Freiberg (Free State of Saxony) on the initiative of the Alternative for Germany party.
Another parliamentary opposition party, the Greens (24 seats in the National Council), is completely opposed to the lifting of sanctions and, accordingly, the expansion of economic ties between Austria and Russia. Recently, on the initiative of Greens deputy Tanja Windbüchler-Souschill, a request was even sent to the president of the National Council demanding an answer to whether the talks involving Reinhold Mitterlehner (People’s Party) held in Moscow in February violated the sanctions regime.
The next parliamentary elections in Austria are set to take place in October 2018 (unless they are brought forward) and preparations are already under way. According to the latest poll, 32% of voters are planning to vote for the FPÖ, 30% for the Social Democrats, and 21% for the People’s Party. The poll speculates further, however. If the People’s Party were headed by Austria’s current foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, then this would ensure that the party outstrips its rivals: 34% versus 25% and 24% respectively for the Freedom Party and the Social Democrats.
One of the FPÖ’s advantages is that it has a strong leadership. The only reason the party’s deputy chairman, Norbert Hofer, failed to become Austrian president in May 2016 is that the results of the vote were blatantly manipulated. The party’s chairman, Heinz-Christian Strache, can take all the credit for transforming the FPÖ from a marginal party into one of the country’s leading parties. At the FPÖ congress in March 2017, he was re-elected as chairman by 99% of the delegates. The congress also confirmed that he is at the head of the party list for the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
Aware of the magnitude of the forthcoming battle, Strache is seeking to destroy the traditional ‘black-red’ duo, a pairing that makes the modernisation of public policy impossible since the government is made up of either the Social Democratic Party with the People’s Party or the People’s Party with the Social Democratic Party.
Victory in the 2018 elections will be difficult. Strache says that his party would need a ‘miracle’ to win. But even if the FPÖ does not win the majority of votes next year, an increase in its representation in the National Council will influence the government’s agenda. In fact, the Freedom Party is already having an impact now.
This is evident in how heavily politicians from both parties of the coalition are borrowing from the FPÖ’s ideas on the refugee issue. And this is where the main intrigue of Austrian politics is hidden. Sebastian Kurz, for example, is being credited for closing the ‘Balkan route’ to refugees; Kurz also suggested setting up a refugee camp outside of the EU in Georgia (his proposal caused quite a stir in Tbilisi); and it was the Austrian foreign minister who spoke out in favour of ending talks with Turkey on its accession to the European Union. All of these initiatives in some way follow the ideology developed by the Freedom Party of Austria, but this actually creates extra difficulties for the FPÖ since it is taking away some of its votes. This is why Strache is calling Kurz «a champion at copying».
The Freedom Party’s ideas (the party is regarded as ultra right-wing) are now so widespread that they are not only being ‘appropriated’ by the right-wing People’s Party, but also the left-wing Social Democratic Party. Concerned with how to win back those Social Democrat voters who have switched allegiance to the FPÖ, in January Chancellor Christian Kern issued something akin to a public confession: «It is not you who have deviated from our path, it is us [Social Democrats – N.M.]... We have ignored uncomfortable truths», he said. In his ‘confession’, the chancellor also said he was ready to challenge Brussels with regard to the refugee policy.
As for the FPÖ, it is going to be difficult, given the increased level of political competition, for the party to find a general direction for its party programme that will allow it to maintain its recognisable face without letting its opponents capitalise on its success.
But the miracle that Heinz-Christian Strache mentioned is still possible – as long as the party believes in it and makes it happen.