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Austria’s longest-serving spymaster has warned about the risks of the hard right Freedom party coming back to power after next year’s elections, given that it has not severed its ties to Russia.
Peter Gridling, who led the Austrian intelligence service BVT between 2008 and 2020, told the Financial Times that the Freedom party continued to have ties to the Kremlin even if the war in Ukraine and recent controversies over Russian meddling have forced it to be more discreet.
“We need to be very vigilant about who is put in charge of which ministries. Wherever we have the Freedom party in government, we need to look at their intentions and their activity,” Gridling said.
His unusual public intervention — a first in Austria’s postwar history — comes amid an increasingly fractious political climate where several years of scandal have weakened mainstream parties and left many voters angry and frustrated with the Viennese establishment.
For almost a year, the Freedom party has held a powerful lead in Austria’s polls, making it highly likely to re-enter, if not head, a new coalition government after elections in October 2024.
“We were very worried about the Freedom party’s contacts with Russia,” Gridling said, recalling his tenure.
“[We investigated how] Russia might finance them, offer them jobs . . . how [the party] would host these round table talks, spreading pure Russian propaganda.”
“They have not changed,” Gridling said. “They still have contact with Russia. Intelligence is a long game — and the Russians have a very long perspective.”
“As a former government official, I am still bound to secrecy. I can’t say everything I know, or write about everything I know. But I can give you an informed assessment of that,” he continued.
Gridling worked under a Freedom party minister for two years between 2017 and 2019, when the party’s current leader, Herbert Kickl, served as minister of interior. It was the first and only occasion the party held that ministry, awarded by then chancellor Sebastian Kurz — who is now ensnared in a labyrinthine probe into political corruption. The defence ministry in the Kurz government was also held by a Freedom party official.
Gridling’s experience of the time is the subject of his book Surprise Attack, published in Austria this month.
“They wanted to change the [intelligence service] immediately,” Gridling told the FT.
His organisation found itself cut off from many European intelligence-sharing networks as a result of the Freedom party’s meddling he said.
“I had to refuse in certain moments to give information away [to Freedom Party officials] which could have helped to identify sources,” Gridling said, referring particularly to ongoing investigations his agency was conducting into rightwing extremists.
Classified materials — from agencies including the UK’s MI5 — nevertheless made it into the Freedom party’s hands.
Austria’s reputation as a playground for Russian spies — a cause of mounting concern among fellow European countries — is well deserved, Gridling said, citing a “remarkably high” number of undercover agents in the city.
He stressed that Russian influence in Austria was not merely covert, however.
Austria’s part-owned state petrochemicals company, OMV, for example, continues to import most of its gas from Russia, and has sent billions of euros to the Kremlin this year doing so.
On Tuesday, former Austrian foreign minister, Karin Kneissl — an independent backed by the Freedom party in 2017 — declared she was moving to live in St Petersburg, citing a “schizophrenic” attitude to Russia in Europe.
Putin attended Kneissl’s wedding in Gamlitz, southern Austria, in 2018. Kneissl is a former board member of Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, and a regular pundit on the Russian propaganda channel RT.
Kickl and other Freedom party ministers were abruptly forced out of government after party leader Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on video (in a sting operation in Ibiza — orchestrated by independent activists) trying to persuade a fake Russian oligarch to buy Austria’s largest newspaper and turn it into a Freedom party mouthpiece in exchange for political favours.
After plunging in popularity as a result of the scandal, the party has slowly clawed back support, particularly as a result of its opposition to the restrictions of the pandemic, and its recent criticism of EU sanctions on Russia, which it blames for the rising cost of living.
Gridling stressed that he respected whatever democratic mandate the Freedom party would gain in upcoming elections. But he urged future coalition partners to consider their choices carefully and safeguard the independence of services like the BVT, which has since been reorganised and renamed the DSN.
“We live in a democracy. The Freedom party is a legal party in the Austrian political establishment,” he said. “But the motivation for me . . . is to say: ‘Don’t forget. Look what they did before. Remember what was said. And ask yourself the question, how far will they go for their party interests and not the interests of Austria’?”
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