Money, Secrets, Power – How the Ibiza Gate Turned Austria’s Government Upside Down
Imagine two important politicians sitting in a luxurious villa on a popular vacation island. They are laughing, drinking alcohol, and talking to a pretty, young woman sitting in front of them. This woman is the niece of a very rich Russian oligarch and is interested in spending some of her millions on political influence. Of course, the politicians are willing to sell some of their political influence in exchange for a large financial boost because the national elections are around the corner. The atmosphere is casual, but suddenly one of the politicians seems to become nervous and mumbles: “Trap, trap, it’s an arranged trap.” His colleague immediately calms him down: “This is not a trap.” However, what both don’t know is that the whole villa is equipped with cameras recording every spoken word and that the published video material will lead to one of the biggest political scandals in their country.
This sounds more like a cliché Hollywood movie, but don’t worry, we won’t write fiction in the Centuria Blog. What seems like the creation of a scriptwriter is a real story called the “Ibiza Gate” which happened in 2017. In this article, I will tell you what the Ibiza Gate was about, what the very surprising and unexpected consequences were, and why the case made it to the news again these days.
July 2017, Ibiza
Heinz-Christian Strache is the leader of the right-populist, conservative party FÖP, which is (at that time) one of the most popular parties in Austria and has a good chance to be elected as one of the governing parties in the national elections. With him in the villa in Ibiza, drinking Vodka RedBull, is his friend and high-ranking FÖP member Johann Gudenus, who played the main role in organizing the meeting this evening. The two men are excited to meet Aljona Markarow, who claims to be the very rich niece of a Russian oligarch and is interested in investing 250 million euros in Austria. Markarow and her accompanist are not even eager to conceal that this money “can’t be stored in a bank” and is illicit money. During this evening several issues are discussed and most of them aren’t to be intended to be public.
First, Strache advises the young Russian investor to buy major parts of the newspaper Krone, which is one of the largest in Austria. She would control one of the most powerful media channels in Austria in exchange for writing supportive articles about Strache’s FÖP. They would just have to “get rid of three or four people” at Krone, and then they could build up a media landscape like president Orban’s in Hungary suggests Strache, which sounds like a media monopole under federal control in Austria.
Another hot topic, discussed in Ibiza revolves around financial donations for the FÖP. In Austria, parties are allowed to only accept foreign donations up to €2,641 and must report them to the financial control authorities. However, Strache explains to the Russian woman that she could bypass these regulations by donating to a non-profit organization. This organization is officially independent but can pass the money to the FÖP to avoid reporting and to receive a larger amount of money. Moreover, Strache claims that this procedure will also be used for “a few very wealthy donors who are willing to pay between €500,000 and €2,000,000.”
Finally, the Russian woman considers founding an organization in Austria to receive federal orders and contracts, for example, in the street and highway construction sector. However, she does not only want state orders but also to be paid a so-called “overprice”, which is an extra charge at the expense of Austrian taxpayers. At first, Strache reacts rejective but during the talks, he changes his stance and assures her that she could receive the overprice additional to federal orders.
May 2019, Germany
The German newspapers SPIEGEL and Süddeutsche Zeitung receive seven hours of video material showing the talks held in Ibiza two years ago. After the publication of parts of this video, it is confirmed that the rich Russian woman was a decoy and the meeting was staged to proof Strache’s and Gundenus’ inclination toward corruption and illegal state businesses. However, none of the politicians held an official state position at that time as the elections were still coming up. Therefore, they didn’t have the authority to assign state orders and their statements themselves are not criminal. Although they didn’t commit a crime, their statements are nevertheless very questionable in ethical terms as they clearly demonstrate the willingness to be involved in corruption.
Consequently, the Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kunz dissolved the government and all federal ministers of the FÖP vacated their official positions. These circumstances led to a situation that has been unique in Austria’s history so far, because until the re-election in September, the state was governed by a so-called expert government. This means that the official state businesses are led by ministers without party affiliation who are not officially elected politicians but, for example, lawyers or judges.
Another surprising effect is that prognoses before the national elections in September 2019 showed that the scandal party FÖP lost only a few percentages, and the opposition could not profit from the Ibiza Gate. How is that possible? A potential explanation would be that many voters sympathize with Strache and Gudenus who have been deceived and were exploited when they were in a drunken state. Moreover, these two politicians might be seen as independent strong characters who rebel with their derailments against the perceived artificial correctness of the elites, and they polarize like, for instance, Donald Trump.
March 2022, St. Pölten
The private investigator Julian Hessenthaler has been identified as the person in charge of the organization of the trap and the video recording in the Ibiza Gate. His exact motivations and intentions as well as further involved persons still remain unclear. The recording and sending of the video to the newspapers remained unpunished for Hessenthaler; however, he has been sentenced by the court of St. Pölten for cocaine trading and document fraud.
I hope this article could give you a little insight into one of the largest political scandals of Austria, which again gained some public attention today due to Hessenthaler’s trial. The Ibiza Gate allowed the public a glimpse behind the scenes of the big political stages, and I will leave it to everyone’s own opinion to decide whether this reveal was necessary to make the public aware of political corruption or whether it was a devious infringement of the politicians’ privacy.