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Austria’s disgraced Strache wanted ‘Orbán-like’ media landscape

In the leaked video of the sting operation that caused his downfall at the weekend, Austrian far-right politician and now former vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache said he wanted to build a media landscape in Austria like Viktor Orbán has done in Hungary, according to multiple international media reports.

Strache (left), pictured at a meeting with Orbán earlier in May (photo: Balázs Szecsődi / Prime Ministerʼs Press Office)

Strache announced his resignation as vice-chancellor of Austria and chairman of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) on Saturday, after a video sting showed him being open to offering public contracts in exchange for financial and campaign backing. The scandal has caused the collapse of the Austrian governing coalition and the announcement of early snap elections.

In the video filmed in Ibiza in July 2017 when the FPÖ was still in opposition - and published on Friday in a joint report by Germanyʼs Der Spiegel and daily Süddeutsche Zeitung - Strache holds discussions with a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch, discussing a variety of topics that expose his willingness to take part in corrupt dealings. The sides also touch upon the topic of acquiring Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung in order to gain more control over the media coverage of events in the country.

In the footage, the woman offers to buy a 50% stake in Kronen Zeitung and switch its editorial position to support the Freedom Party, according to a BBC report.

“We want to build a media landscape like Orbán did,” the BBC quotes Strache as saying in the video. “If you take over the Kronen Zeitung three weeks before the election and get us into first place, then we can talk about everything,” he adds.

As part of the deal, Strache suggests that the Russian woman “set up a company like Strabag,” the Austrian construction firm. “All the government orders that Strabag gets now, [you] would get,” he adds.

Der Spiegel notes that Strache also suggests a person to help with the acquisition of media outlets: namely, Heinrich Pecina, the same man who bought former Hungarian left-wing daily Népszabadság, only to shut it down shortly after. Strache describes Pecina as a “big player,” as well as someone who “bought up all Hungarian media for Orbán over the past 15 years and primed them for him.”

In a statement to Hungarian independent news site index.hu, Orbánʼs press chief Bertalan Havasi said that the resignation of Strache is an Austrian “internal affair,” and that the government does not wish to comment further, adding that neither would it comment on business matters or the decisions of media owners.

Repercussions for right?

The online version of the U.K.ʼs The Guardian draws attention to the repercussions just days ahead of EU parliamentary elections this week, noting that the scandal has given opponents of the resurgent far-right parties in Europe some much-needed ammunition.

The Guardian report cites German Chancellor Angela Merkel as sharply criticizing “politicians for sale,” saying the EU is facing “populist movements that in many areas are contemptuous of European values, who want to destroy the Europe of our values.”

The report also cites Michael Schickhofer of Austria’s Social Democrats as describing Strache’s behaviour as “symbolic … We can be sure this is just the tip of the iceberg.” It also quotes István Ujhelyi, a Hungarian Socialist MEP, predicting that Strache is “the first domino” to fall: “Next up are Salvini, Le Pen, Orbán and the rest of Moscow’s far-right puppets,” he observes.