I was in Austria in the summer of 2019. Landing in the Alpine university town of Klagenfurt, I soon found out that Austria, probably one of the last places on earth one would expect to have a major political scandal, was in fact in the middle of one.
The scandal broke when video footage emerged of the former leader of Austria’s far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), Heinz-Christian Strache, then Austria’s Vice-Chancellor, promising public contracts to a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece in exchange for support for the FPÖ in the 2017 election campaign.
The fake billionaire woman offered to buy the country’s leading tabloid newspaper Kronen Zeitung and, somewhat in the manner of Rupert Murdoch, said she would change its editorial line to support the FPÖ’s anti-Islam, anti-immigration platform.
The video sting, which was secretly filmed on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza, caused Strache, a dentist before becoming a xenophobic politician, to resign as party leader when it was made public on the websites of the German weekly Der Spiegel and the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung.
Strache’s coalition government with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) collapsed after parliament passed a no-confidence vote.
As I pointed out in my CounterPunch piece at that time, the scandal had its lighter side.
The Dutch band Vengaboys’ song “We’re Going to Ibiza” became a number 1 hit in Austria soon after the Ibiza Affair broke out, and the band was invited by protestors to give a performance in front of the Federal Chancellery in Vienna. The Dutch band brought Vienna’s downtown to a standstill.
“We’re Going to Ibiza”, a sing-along “we’re off to the beach” melody about Spain’s version of Atlantic City or Galveston, was first released in 1999 by a different band and topped the UK charts at that time.
No one in their wildest dreams could anyone imagine “We’re Going to Ibiza” ever becoming a protest song— Pete Seeger or Joan Baez would probably have reckoned it to be a piece of drivel. Here is the song’s opening stanza:
I don’t want to be a bus driver
All my life
I’m gonna pack my bags and leave this town
Grab a flight
Fly away on Venga airways
Fly me high
It is a truism that the wheels of justice grind slowly, and a long and comprehensive investigation by anti-corruption prosecutors turned up several other allegations of wrongdoing against Strache and other prominent politicians.
Last week a Vienna court convicted Strache on a corruption charge and gave him a 15-month suspended jail sentence.
The court found that an illegal €10,000/$12,000 donation to Strache’s party helped swing the law in favour of a private hospital.
Strache was tried alongside Walter Grubmüller, a longtime friend and the owner of the private hospital, who made the donation.
Prosecutors charged that the donation was an attempt to buy a change in the law in order to allow the hospital’s operator to charge medical treatment costs directly to the Austrian public health insurance fund.
Grubmüller’s hospital got access to the funds in 2018.
Strache maintained that the hospital was being discriminated against by the state and that Grubmüller’s donation had nothing to do with the change brought about in the law.
The judge ruled that the donation did in fact influence a change in the law, alongside perks in favour of Grubmüller’s hospital. Grubmüller was also found guilty and received a year’s suspended jail sentence.
Strache was acquitted of a second charge of receiving favours in the form of trips to the Greek island of Corfu at Grubmüller’s invitation.
Strache has also been accused of embezzling party funds to pay for his luxurious ways during the 14 years he headed the FPÖ, though he has not been charged over this.
Kurz returned to the Chancellorship after Ibizagate, this time heading a coalition between his ÖVP and the Greens, and has thus far managed to avoid any serious political consequences from Ibizagate, though some residues from it still waft in his direction.
In May prosecutors announced they were investigating Kurz on suspicion of giving false testimony to a committee of lawmakers looking into Ibizagate and other graft allegations.
Kurz has denied the allegation, insisting he will not bow to pressure to resign, even if formally charged.
Meanwhile Strache attempted a political comeback last year with a bid to become Vienna’s mayor, but his list won just 3% of the vote in the city elections.
Currently, the whistleblower behind the Ibizagate video sting and its subsequent circulation, Julian Hessenthaler, will soon be in court facing an array of charges, some not connected to Ibizagate. Hessenthaler was arrested in Germany late last year and extradited to Austria.
Multiple European investigative orders were used against Hessenthaler, including wide-ranging physical surveillance, seizure of banking information, property searches, telephone tapping, and the commandeering of passenger name records from airlines.
Hessenthaler also faces charges of falsifying documents relating to the Ibizagate video, as well as drug charges based on inconsistent testimony from a jailed dealer who was released after speaking to investigators.
Investigations into Hessenthaler’s case were led by a civil servant closely linked to Strache, several NGOs said, citing legal documents and media reporting.
Thomas Lohninger, the executive director of epicenter.works, an Austrian digital rights NGO coordinating the campaign to free Hessenthaler, maintained the Ibizagate video’s publication was protected under freedom of expression laws in Austria and Germany.
Lohninger said: “There is a strong sense that Austrian authorities are resorting to other criminal charges, or at least to prosecuting them in an excessive manner, to silence Hessenthaler. Apparently, he is being made an example of to deter potential future informers from expressing their opinion freely”.
Lohninger went on: “Whether he committed the document- and drug-related offences he is now charged with must be resolved in a court of law. However, the intensity and resources used to investigate Julian Hessenthaler – who is entitled to the presumption of innocence – are remarkable”.
The signal sent is indisputable, Lohninger contended: “This inevitably acts as a deterrent that discourages other whistleblowers from making revelations and can ultimately limit freedom of opinion and the press in Austria”.
As is the case with Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning, and Edward Snowden, those who publicize the crimes of officialdom will themselves be made criminals, while the malfeasant officials go scot free, or receive slap-on-the-wrist suspended sentences.