INNSBRUCK, AUSTRIA — Austria’s far-right interior minister Herbert Kickl last week ordered the creation of a “border protection unit” to prevent an influx of migrants into the country — the latest anti-immigrant policy by an extremist far-right government that has become a safe haven for Russian influence.
Earlier this month, Kickl said that the government wants to “concentrate” migrants “in one place,” and faced immediate criticisms for the allusions to Nazi concentration camps. His comments drew thousands of Austrians to the streets to protest the country’s far-right shift and to call on Europe to boycott the government. Last week, members of Austria’s Jewish community announced that they would pull out of official events commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27 if far-right lawmakers from the Freedom Party are in attendance.
But the country’s far-right march only seems to be getting started. Last month, Austria became the only Western European country with a governing far-right party, formed in a coalition of the right-wing extremist Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Conservatives (ÖVP). Led by Austria’s new chancellor, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, who won mainly due to his anti-immigrant stance, the government is made up of several politicians known for their racist, neo-Nazi views.
At a meeting last week, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel warned Kurz that Berlin would be watching Vienna “more closely than usual.”
Weakening Europe from within
Despite the domestic and regional pushback, Austria’s embrace of right-wing extremism has received a warm reception in Russia, which has openly supported far-right parties all over Europe, including the Alternative for Germany and the French National Front. After Austria’s new coalition government was sworn in, in December, Russian President Vladimir Putin released a statement expressing his belief “that this corresponds to the fundamental interests of the peoples of our countries and is in the interests of strengthening stability and security on the European continent.”
“As a major power, Russia is interested in a weak European Union. For that reason, it is obvious that its government supports right-wing populist and extremists all over Europe. The Freedom Party is one of them,” said Farid Hafez, an Austrian political scientist and fellow at Georgetown University’s Bridge Initiative. According to Hafez, the Kremlin hopes that the rise of these group weakens Europe from within.
Over the last few years, the Russian government’s influence on the Freedom Party has become more pronounced. In December 2016, the Freedom Party signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s party United Russia. “Internationally, the Freedom Party continues to gain in influence,” Austria’s current vice chancellor and leader of the Freedom Party Heinz Christian Strache said about the accord on his Facebook page.
“Having the Freedom Party in the Austrian government is a success for [Russia]. Both share a stance against the United States and against the EU,” Hafez told ThinkProgress.
Many of the Kremlin’s official views on certain political events have seeped in to Austrian politics. Strache and his colleagues have adopted Russia’s stances on the status quo in Serbia and Ukraine, as well as the war in Syria. In September 2017, leading FPÖ politician Harald Vilimsky echoed Russia’s stance on Syria, claiming that the war is over and hinting that Syrian refugees could be deported soon.
Strache has also adopted the narrative of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russian government, thanking the Kremlin in 2016 for driving so-called Islamic State terrorists out of Aleppo.
“Many right-wing groups in the Western world identify themselves with the Assad regime. It is important to mention that both share attitudes such as Islamophobia and a sectarian character. Especially Islamophobia is an important element of these neo-Nazis and white supremacists, like anti-Semitism in the past and present,” Yassin al Haj Saleh, a Syrian writer, told ThinkProgress. “For them, Bashar al-Assad is a ‘tough guy,’ like Hitler, who can kill as many people as he wants. Assad is their ideal for strong leadership.”
Russian state television Russia Today (RT) and other Russian state media outlets have further spread propaganda in favor of the Damascus regime, portraying opposition groups and first responders as an extremist monolith consisting of terrorists. In recent months, RT has given several FPÖ politicians a platform, where they have had the opportunity to deny being “Nazis” and to tout right-wing issues like the problem of “economic migrants” who “don’t obey the law.”
Former vice-mayor of Vienna Johann Gudenus took rhetorical support of the Russian government one step further in 2012, when he visited Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov in Grozny, without informing the Austrian embassy in Moscow. Austrian media criticized the FPÖ’s meeting with the Moscow-installed dictator, pointing out numerous human rights violations in Kadyrov’s Chechnya.
“We shared the same opinion,” Gudenus said after meeting Kadyrov. According to Gudenus, the conversation with the dictator involved the “problem” of Chechen refugees in Austria, which has the largest Chechen diaspora in Europe. The takeaway, Gudenus said, was that most Chechen refugees in Austria are there “for economic reasons.” Gudenus, whose father was a well-known Holocaust denier, once described Europe as “the cradle of whites.“
“Considering Gudenus’ work, he can fairly be described as a lobbyist for the Kremlin. His ties and his propaganda campaign often were more than obvious,” Hafez said.
As the far-right continues to rise in influence, progressive parties are struggling to push back. Most mainstream parties have resorted to altering their messaging, adopting populist rhetoric, and abandoning calls for integration with the European Union in an effort to appeal to Austrians.
This shift to the right is predictable, Hafez said. “Already in past, established parties adopted many stances and slogans of the Freedom Party after it made huge gains” — and the tactic may only embolden the right.