The Kremlin on Monday said the corruption scandal involving Austria’s far-right party that caused the government to collapse has nothing to do with Russia.
‘This is an incident that has not and could not have anything to do with us,’ Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists in Russia’s first official comment on the scandal.
The scandal was prompted by the publication by two German newspapers on Friday of footage from a sophisticated hidden-camera sting in 2017.
In the recordings – of unknown origin – Austria’s Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache is seen talking to a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, Igor Makarov.
The video filmed in Ibiza in 2017 shows former Vice-Chancellor Austria Heinz-Christian Strache (right) meeting a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch. The Kremlin today denied any involvement
Heinz-Christian Strache (pictured) quit his government post as well as his 14-year leadership of the far-right Freedom Party on Saturday
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, of the Austrian People’s Party, (second from right) arrives for a news conference in Vienna today after announcing fresh elections
The pair discuss how she could invest in Austria, and Strache holds out the possibility of awarding public contracts in return.
Strache has stepped down as vice-chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) in disgrace and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has called for new elections.
‘I can’t in any way evaluate the appearance of this video because it has nothing to do with Russia or the president or the government,’ Peskov said.
‘We don’t know for sure who this woman is, whether she is an ethnic Russian or a Russian citizen.’
Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe), delivers a press statement today as media speculation grows that he will be forced out
‘We will give up our government offices if Interior Minister Herbert Kickl is forced out,’ Transport Minister Norbert Hofer (right) said today
The oligarch referred to in the video, Makarov, told the Russian edition of Forbes magazine on Sunday that he is an only child and has ‘no blood ties’ with the woman in the video, with whom ‘I am not acquainted at all.’
The scandal has wrecked the country’s government just before European elections, bringing an end to a coalition many on the European right held up as a model.
With Kurz scrambling to regain control over the weekend, saying he can no longer tolerate the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) scandals, media speculation is growing he will also oust the Interior Minister Herbert Kickl.
In the video, Strache appears to hint at ways political donations could escape legal scrutiny. Kickl (pictured) was FPOe secretary general at the time when any political donations would have been made
But the FPOe closed ranks behind Kickl, threatening to quit their cabinet posts, which besides the interior ministry include the foreign, defence, transport and social affairs ministries.
‘We will give up our government offices if Interior Minister Herbert Kickl is forced out,’ Norbert Hofer, who is infrastructure minister and took over the FPOe leadership on Sunday, told a press conference.
‘I feel very sorry that such a great government project ends so soon… I think this government was very popular,’ he said, adding that Kickl had done ‘nothing wrong’.
Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen on Sunday suggested elections be held in early September with a date to be fixed after further talks with other parties.
In the footage Strache is shown speaking to a fake Russian backer inside a villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza in 2017.
They discuss how she could gain control of the country’s largest-circulation tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung, and install editorial staff who would help the FPOe’s 2017 election campaign.
In return, Strache held out the possibility of awarding public contracts.
Elsewhere in the footage, Strache appears to hint at ways political donations could escape legal scrutiny.
Kickl was FPOe secretary general at the time when any political donations would have been made. Strache on Saturday denied the party had received illegal funds.
‘It is clear Herbert Kickl cannot investigate himself,’ Kurz was quoted by the Kurier newspaper on Monday.
He has said the recordings were the final straw in a string of FPOe-related scandals.
The most damaging recent controversy linked to interior minister Kickl was last year when he ordered raids on the country’s own domestic intelligence agency BVT.
Numerous documents were seized, raising fears among Austria’s Western partners about the possibility of leaks to Moscow.
The FPOe has a cooperation agreement with President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
People gathered outside the office of the Vice Chancellor on Saturday as he made his resignation speech
Over the weekend thousands of people demonstrated in Vienna against the government at an impromptu gathering in front of the chancelery on Saturday, as well as at a previously planned pro-EU rally on Sunday.
In an emotional resignation statement Saturday, Strache said he had been ‘stupid’ and ‘irresponsible’ but was the victim of a ‘targeted political attack’.
The scandal has already made waves outside of Austria.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the weekend reacted to the scandal by warning of the dangers of far-right politicians ‘for sale’, who wanted to ‘destroy the Europe of our values’.
The scandal may also dent the prospects of the far-right populist alliance marshalled by Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, in which the FPOe plays a key part.