'Putin's friends' in Austria's right-wing FPÖ achieve strong election result

Austria's right-wing populists look to have come in third place in the election, possibly gaining 51 seats. The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) maintains close ties to Russia, which has helped institutionalize the party.

Even before Sunday's election in Austria, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) apparently wanted to downplay its relations with Moscow as much as possible. Russia is mentioned only once — on the last page of the party's 29-page platform for this year's snap parliamentary elections. You have to read the fine print to find the indirect call for an end to EU sanctions imposed on Russia in response to the Ukraine crisis. The platform states that it is unfair to lay down a "policy that contradicts neutrality — as it does with regard to Russia — causing massive damage to the domestic economy and agriculture."

Read more: Austrian elections: Young, conservative Sebastian Kurz's People's party wins poll

A strong result

Following the successful election results for far-right parties in Germany and France that — in addition to their xenophobic policies — stand out because of their pro-Russia stance, the FPÖ has again achieved a strong result for right-wing forces on the European continent. Based on preliminary results, the FPÖ looks set to become the third-strongest party behind the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democrats (SPÖ). As the ÖVP and SPÖ said during the campaign that they did not intend to enter into a "grand coalition" government, the FPÖ will likely be the kingmakers for Kurz and the People's Party.

A televised debate between Austria's top candidates

Peter Filzmeier, professor for political science and democracy studies at Danube University Krems, had predicted that the chances of right-wing populists participating in government would be "very high." He said one of the reasons for this was that the two current governing parties, SPÖ and ÖVP, are in a "deep dispute in every respect."

The FPÖ, founded in 1956, has already been part of a government twice, the last time being between 2000 and 2005 under then-party leader Jörg Haider. The recent refugee crisis has heralded a new rise in the party's popularity.

Putin admirers and Crimea observers

The FPÖ has maintained good relations with Russia for a long time — Haider once traveled to Moscow to meet then-Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. In recent years, the network of contacts has expanded significantly.

Many FPÖ members admire Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to Eva Zelechowski, a journalist for the daily Wiener Zeitung and co-author of the book "Putins rechte Freunde" ("Putin's right-wing friends"). It focuses on the rise of right-wing populists in Europe and was published at the beginning of 2017.

"Putin symbolizes the strength of a leader who still has everything under control," Zelechowski told DW.

Journalist Eva Zelechowski says that Putin is much admired in the FPÖ

Vienna's deputy mayor, Johann Gudenus, seems to enjoy particularly good relations with Moscow. The 41-year-old FPÖ member studied in Moscow and speaks fluent Russian. When Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, he went there as an observer and witnessed the referendum.

"On the day of the vote, I did not see anything that would suggest pressure, propaganda or military intervention," Gudenus told DW at the time. After the annexation, other FPÖ politicians also traveled to Crimea, but they recognized it as part of Russia, unlike the European Union.

Read more: Make Austria Great Again: The rapid rise of Sebastian Kurz

Agreement with Putin's party

Nothing is known about any direct or indirect Russian financial support for the FPÖ, as is the case with France's Front National. The party denies all such claims. But in terms of institutional cooperation, the FPÖ has taken relations to the next level. After FPÖ presidential candidate Norbert Hofer was defeated in 2016, top-ranking party members went to Moscow to sign a five-year cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia party. According to press reports, one of the points described the "raising of younger generations in the spirit of patriotism and work enjoyment."

In 2016, top FPÖ party members signed a 5-year cooperation agreement with Putin's United Russia party

Sergei Zheleznyak, the State Duma's deputy speaker who signed the agreement, is on the EU sanctions list. This did not prevent the Russian politician from attending a meeting with the FPÖ in Linz in May. Zheleznyak wished the FPÖ "much success in the elections" and praised the party for opposing the EU sanctions.        

Zelechowski believes that the FPÖ agreement with the Russians has been of no use until now, but that it serves as an "investment in the future."

"In the case of government participation, it will open the door to the international stage," she said. "The FPÖ would be isolated in the beginning because it is a right-wing populist party," explains Zelechowski. "Many Western governments would shy away from attacking them, but if Putin would be seen as welcoming an FPÖ vice chancellor, things may change."

Lifting of sanctions?

Observers note that overall, Russia barely played a role in the Austrian election campaign. While US intelligence agencies determined that Russia had interfered in the US elections, there was no interference in Austria, said Zelechowski. She added that Moscow does not need to tamper with elections because other parties in Austria are also pro-Russian.

It is still unclear whether the FPÖ would prevent the extension of EU sanctions on Russia. "I'm sure they'll stand up for the lifting of sanctions," said Zelechowski, also referring to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has spoken out against the sanctions.