Cloak and Dagger Politics

A special commission investigates cases of espionage between the Austrian oposition parties and the Kazakh Intelligence

Dr. Anton Pelinka in his Vienna office, where he ‘follows’ Austrian politics | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

Tales of political wiretapping and Internet espionage echo through the halls of the Austrian Parliament as public officials squirm under rumors of involvement with foreign intelligence service. With the parliamentary investigating committee reconvening after the summer break, accusations of spying between two of the opposition parties threaten reputations on both sides.

It’s a bit of The Third Man meets Das Leben der Anderen, with a public prosecutor listening in on mobile phone calls and party hacks snooping through the electronic filing cabinet, snuffling for dirty linen to hang out for public view.

In detective stories, espionage involves men dressed in grey trench coats with turned up collars, sunglasses and a black hat, secretly meeting with their whistleblowers at smoky dives with a pool table.

In real life, a Kazakh businessman and alleged spy met at Panorama Schenke, a four star hotel and restaurant near the Laa Recreation Center in Vienna’s 10th district with his informant, an Austrian politician.

Through a window, Apple strudel is on sale for €2.60, and the restaurant with its walls painted in bright yellow is filled with the electronic sound of Waltzes played live on a keyboard. A five year old girl cycles on the paved alleys of the shady dining terrace, her white Teddy on the carrier. An elderly couple are enjoying dumplings with chanterelles.

It was here that the socialist district councilor Anton Gaal introduced his Kazakh neighbor Ildar A. to his friend and retired agent of the Heeresabwehramt (intelligence services) Jimmy H. in spring 2008, as reported by the Austrian weekly Der Falter.

“I know Gaal, he comes here very often,” a waiter confirms, but denies that he had noticed anything conspicuous about him or his guests.

A. had commissioned H. to investigate the addresses of the former Kazakh ambassador Rakhat Alijew and of the former boss of the Kazakh secret service Alnur Mussajew, the Falter reported. Soon after Ildar A. had received the addresses, two attempts to hijack Mussajew failed. Now Ildar A., who denies the reproaches, has been imprisoned and charged for inciting the abuse of authority, attempting to flee the country, and working for the secret service. The trial will begin at the end of September.

Before then, in the beginning of the month, Austria will see another investigation of Austrian politicians being involved in espionage, not in court, rather in front of a parliamentarian committee.

Triggered on Jul. 9th, by the revelation that the mobile phone of the deputy party chairman of the far right BZÖ [BundnisZukunft Österreich] had been monitored by the state prosecutor during a lawsuit without a warrant, accusations abounded of opposition politicians involved in espionage. The next day, Parliament decided it was time to investigate, with support of all parties.

Also under investigation are claims by Heinz Christian Strache, the leader of the right-wing party FPÖ. Strache accused the Green Party in the Austrian daily Die Presse of actions against FPÖ-politicians with a “network of police officers using Stasi-methods.” This he described as “the biggest espionage scandal of the Second Republic,” and pointed to representative Karl Öllinger as being involved, backed up by emails between Öllinger and Linz police officer Uwe Sailer.

“That’s absurd,” Öllinger countered in Die Presse on Jul. 10. While acknowledging he had been in contact with Uwe Sailer, it was hardly spying. He had only commissioned Sailer’s private data research firm to review inquiries about relations between right-extremist websites and FPÖ politicians. The Green Party itself said it wished to clarify how the FPÖ had come into the possession of these private emails and suspects an FPÖ assembly woman whose ID card had been found in the bathrooms of their club rooms.

The Austrian espionage series then culminated into the suspicion raised in a report by the protection of the constitution agency claiming that assemblymen had issued requests for a review of inquiries by foreign intelligence officers on Jul. 17. Although the published version of the report doesn’t mention any names, Die Presse reports suggested that the bulletin could be about Harald Vilimsky, secretary general of the FPÖ. Vilimsky had submitted a request on behalf of the Kazakh government, demanding the extradition of the former Kazakh ambassador Rachat Alijew, who had fallen from grace with his father-in-law, President Nursultan Nasarbajew. In Nov. 2008 Vilimsky wanted to know from Maria Fekter, the Interior Minister, why Austria didn’t institute proceedings against Alijew, who had been convicted of kidnapping, extortion and robbery in his home country.

Four days before the commission first met on Jul. 17, further cases of espionage surfaced. The Department of Defense and Sports announced that after internal investigations had raised the suspicion of leaks to outsiders by staff of the domestic intelligence service, the Heeresabwehramt, in 2000 and 2001, the public prosecutor has launched an investigation in April. Furthermore, suspicions were raised in the Austrian media that these accusations might involve Ewald Stadler and former Defense Minister Herbert Scheibner from the BZÖ (back then still FPÖ). Both denied the claims. Apart from the Heeresabwehramt, the commission will also investigate if the foreign intelligence service, the Heeresnachrichtendienst, had leaked information to politicians.

Considering all of these accusations, comparisons to spy novels and films is hardly surprising. But espionage has a long history in Austrian politics, and a relatively short one with parliamentarian investigation committees – leading to speculation about the prospects for full disclosure.

To get an idea, The Vienna Review spoke to two experts in the field of Austrian intelligence and domestic politics: the Austrian intelligence historian Prof. Dr. Siegfried Beer of the University Graz, and Prof. Dr. Anton Pelinka, Professor of Political Science and Nationalism Studies at the Central European University, Budapest and frequent commentator on Austrian politics.

According to Dr. Beer, the Austrian intelligence agencies (which have their roots in the Habsburg Empire) have, compared to other secret services, a fairly good reputation. That the Austrian intelligence is now being heavily criticized is in his opinion “completely unjustified.” Although he agrees that the leaks should be investigated, he doesn’t have high expectations of the commission investigations as their assignment is “too limited” – which will only lead to “political argy-bargy” instead of a detailed discussion of structural problems. There is also a woeful lack of expertise.

“When I think about who will be taking part, I ask myself, what result can we expect at the end of the day?” he said. “I have dealt with this [topic] for over 25 years, and I know how little we know. What do you think a random assemblyman, who has not dealt with these issues at all, can really accomplish?”

Instead, Dr. Beer advocates for the setting up of an ongoing commission for security issues, including the Austrian intelligence agencies.

There is also the human factor.

“Working for the secret service is just a job, and people make mistakes,” he points out. Beer also blames the recruiting practices as one component of the problem. As a result he calls for a change in the intelligence service tradition of only recruiting from among their own ranks. They should look for the nation’s “brightest minds,” he says, like the CIA, which selects its recruits at America’s leading universities, including Harvard, Princeton and Columbia University.

Anton Pelinka, in contrast to Beer, embraces the espionage commission inquiry, in part simply because its establishment requires a majority of votes.

“We have this exceptional case now that a government has agreed on a commission,” Pelinka told The Vienna Review. “This constellation took place the last time in 2006. Basically, commission inquiries are very good as they strengthen the parliament as a [stage] for political disputes.”

Pelinka, who also supports minority voting rights for commission inquiries, pointed to the history of reluctance by governments to agree on commissions, as they usually strengthen the opposition. After a series of successful commission inquiries in the 1980s, many strong political leaders, including state secretaries, were disposed, with the result that no commissions were called for an entire decade.

That the grand coalition agreed this time to the investigations, Pelinka explains, is due to the “political calculations” of the SPÖ and ÖVP, rather than the explosiveness of the issues.

“It initially suits the governing parties when the opposing parties go off on each other,” Pelinka said. Nevertheless, he ruled out the possibility that the entire episode was a government plot. “Although they agreed with a certain schadenfreude, I don’t believe that the commission inquiry was an intrigue by the governing parties,” he insisted with a wry smile. “I don’t believe that they are capable of such finesse.”

Regarding the Green Party spying on the FPÖ through a police officer, and the FPÖ receiving leaks from the Heeresabwehramt, Pelinka said he “wouldn’t be surprised.” There has been “traditionally good communication between parts of the executive branch and the military with the FPÖ” and that members of the Green Party, because of their reputation as watchdogs, they would often receive information from “individuals who feel victimized or have grievances against the government.”

Money may be another possible explanation for the intelligence leaks to parliamentarians.

“I’m no smarter than the commission. But it is clear that in comparison with other European countries, Austria has the most poorly paid and most under-funded armed forces.”

With the governing parties observing the inquiry into these serious allegations from a safe distance, who is likely to benefit from the outcome? This is difficult to predict, Pelinka said. In political science one has to consider even more variables than in economics, and thus it would be easier “to forecast the yen exchange rate in 2010” than to answer this question.

“With the public distracted from the critique of the governing parties, the espionage commission inquiry could harm the opposition short term,” Pelinka said. “But in the long run, it will seem as if the two big adversaries were the Green Party and the FPÖ, with the two toothless coalition parties standing on the sidelines. In this case, of course, the exciting actors are the Green Party and the FPÖ.”

However, regardless of the outcome of the inquiry itself or the direction of the political spotlight, the fact that a parliamentarian committee has been initiated shows that the Austrian democracy itself may, in the end, be the true beneficiary in the espionage scandal.

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