Heinz-Christian Strache has resigned as Austria’s vice chancellor a day after German media reported that he and a close aide discussed potentially illegal quid pro quo arrangements with a suspected Russian business woman.
Speaking to the media on Saturday, Strache said he has submitted his resignation letter to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Strache also stepped down as leader of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), the junior member of the Austrian ruling coalition.
He insisted that he and his fellow party member Johann Gudenus, who took part in the controversial meeting, were victims of a long-running smear campaign, which culminated in the release of the “illegally recorded” footage.
“It was political assassination,” the politician stated.
The story, broken by Spiegel and Suddeutscher Zeitung on Friday, cited a secret recording of a July 2017 meeting, which was leaked to the two outlets.
The video showed Strache and Gudenus talking to a woman who was described as a “niece of a Russian oligarch” by the outlets (Strache clarified that she was in fact Russian-speaking Latvian citizen). According to the leaked information, the politicians and the woman discussed the possibility of her buying a majority share in an Austrian tabloid newspaper and using it as a platform to support the FPO in the 2017 national election. Once in power, the party reportedly would help the woman’s construction business to obtain government contracts in Austria. The participants of the meeting also discussed ways to potentially circumvent Austria’s transparency laws for party donations by using a charity as an intermediary, according to the exposés.
During the media conference, Strache insisted his party didn’t benefit in any way from the meeting and that he never met the woman after that. He added that the nature of the conversations has been misrepresented by the German journalists.
I always said that during the meeting I insisted that everything must be within the law. I demand release of all relevant video materials, which will show that it was all legal.
Strache said he was sorry that his actions resulted in a scandal and apologized to anyone who may be offended by him.
He did stress, however, that those behind it were “waiting for two years” to release the footage. Notably, the publication comes days ahead of the European Parliament election in Austria. The FPO was expected to be among the beneficiaries of the pan-European swing to the right, with polls projecting that they would win around 23 percent of the vote, compared to 19.7 percent in 2014.