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Austria's tilt toward Russia worries intelligence experts

May 22,2018 12:32

VIENNA — In a 19th-century kaffeehaus here, a handful of political activists nod their heads while sharing opinions many would consider racist, homophobic and awash with conspiracy theories. One topic is never far from their lips: These men believe ...


The FPÖ's senior coalition partner is the conservative People's Party (ÖVP), led by Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz. Kurz, 31, explained that he wouldn't expel diplomats because he wanted Austria to be a "builder of bridges between East and West" and "to keep the channels of communication to Russia open."
The FPÖ has also called for an end to anti-Russia sanctions and backed a referendum on leaving the European Union — an institution Putin has long sought to destabilize.
In February, the country's domestic intelligence service was raided, a move the FPÖ-controlled Interior Ministry said was to investigate alleged misuse of data by officials.
But Austria’s president and others demanded an explanation after it emerged the police team that carried out the operation was a street crime unit not used to dealing with such cases, and was headed by an FPÖ member.
The scandal dominated the Austria's news cycle for weeks, and according to media reports some of the material seized related to "extremist" far-right groups with FPÖ links.
"The whole thing is outrageous," the leader of the liberal NEOS party, Matthias Strolz, told state broadcaster ORF. "It stinks to high heaven."
A rebalancing act
Austria's warmth for Russia is neither new nor confined to the far-right, however.
The Allies and Soviets withdrew from the country in 1955 on the condition it wouldn't take sides in the Cold War. It entered the E.U. in 1995, but never joined NATO.
Many Austrian citizens appear to have a fondness for Russia, too. More than one-third said they favored softer sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, according to a poll by the Austrian market research company OGM.
Back in the kaffeehaus, Markovics and his friends say that "heavy" Western "propaganda" over Crimea spurred them into creating their activist group, called the Suworow Institute after a Russian military leader from the 1700s.
The institute employs seven people and has around 100 members, according to its founder, 31-year-old Patrick Poppel.
"We try to present a different perspective especially on Russian foreign policy," Poppel says, peering through his small, wire-rimmed glasses.
Patrick Poppel is a former member of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) who founded a pro-Russia group, the Suworow Institute.Christian Wind / for NBC NewsPoppel and Markovics were both members of the FPÖ, but quit because they feel the party hadn't gone far enough in supporting Moscow while in government. They also say the FPÖ has been too soft on what they call the "Islamization" of Europe by refugees.
They deny any links to the Russian state, and say they are not racist or fascist.
However, Poppel talks of defending "Christian civilization" by closing Austria's borders to immigrants and Muslims. He also wants to repatriate all those deemed non-indigenous — eve though his wife is from Armenia — and speaks out against liberals who advocate "extreme homosexuality and feminism."
Ultimately, Markovics says, the group believes that "elites" in the U.S. and its allies are dominating Europe, and "making profit out of actions that could lead us directly into nuclear apocalypse."
They see greater ties with Russia as a way to rebalance that.
'Definitely not a threat'
The FPÖ insists its links to Moscow are not problematic.
Johannes Hübner is a lawyer, former FPÖ lawmaker and member of the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society. He withdrew his candidacy in last year's legislative elections after giving a speech some claimed had anti-Semitic overtones — something he denies.
Speaking to NBC News over eggs and avocado on the veranda of his spacious Vienna apartment, Hübner recounted his time in Parliament.
"As a politician, I used a lot of my energy to lobby for more understanding for Russia and to lobby against cutting ties with Russia again," he says.
Unlike the fringe Suworow Institute, the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society boasts high-profile politicians, businessmen and academics in Vienna and Moscow among its members.
Its board includes prominent FPÖ lawmaker Johann Gudenus, 41, a square-jawed speaker who studied in Moscow. He is often cited as the prime example of his party's deep ties with Russia. When contacted by NBC News, Gudenus' spokesman said he was not available.
Does Hübner see any problem or malice in fostering ties to a country often criticized by Western watchdogs as undemocratic and a human rights abuser?
"It is definitely not a threat," he says, smiling gently. "I was in politics for almost nine years here and I would have realized if [Russia] tried to influence policy ... or if they bribed people for a dark network. It doesn't exist."
Like many in the FPÖ, he says building bridges to Russia is important to counterbalance the "overwhelming American influence," which is too often presented as the "white knight" of global affairs.
"The Moscow influence in Europe is zero," Hübner adds. "It would be good if we had more influence from Russia. Not 50 percent, but maybe 10 percent or 15 percent. Now it is maybe 1 percent."

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