Retired Colonel charged with spying for Russia >>> Austrian participation in European army ruled out >>> Reform of the community service >>> Debate on hidden party financing via think tanks
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Retired Colonel charged with spying for Russia
A case of espionage in the Bundesheer has shaken the country in the last few days. Thanks to a hint by a British intelligence service, a retired Bundesheer officer was taken into custody on Nov 10, on charges of selling confidential information to the Russian Federation. He has since been released, and a decision on his custody awaiting trial is pending.
The 70-year old former Colonel reportedly passed on intelligence on Bundesheer artillery, aerial assets, situation analyses on migration streams as well as personal profiles of senior officers in exchange for pay. Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl (FPÖ) after a call with her Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov cancelled a scheduled trip to Moscow, which in turn accused the Austrian government of ‘megaphone diplomacy’.
The case is delicate not least because the FPÖ in 2016 signed a five-year cooperation agreement with Russia’s governing party and, like many right-wing outfits in Europe, keeps a pro-Kremlin stance. It also echoes with a case more than a century old when infamous Austrian Colonel Alfred Redl sold the Empire’s mobilisation plans, order of battle and more to the Tsarist state; his indiscretion is widely believed to have contributed to Austrian misfortune on the Eastern front early in WWI.
No Austrian participation in a possible European army
Austrian Defence Minister Mario Kunasek has dismissed participation in a possible future European army as called for by French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel. Austrian neutrality, as enshrined in the republic’s constitution, has been cited as the main hindrance for engaging in such a venture.
Reform of the community service
On Wednesday, the Austrian government will decide on a reform of the community service, the alternative to military service, aiming to make the service “more attractive, more efficient, and easier to oversee and control”. The proposed changes to the law – which then need to be approved by parliament – include an E-learning tool through which young men doing the community service are to be taught civic education, including Austrian history and the basics of national and European law. While non-completion of the module will not have any legal consequences for community servants, it is compulsory for their superiors in organisations employing them, along with a refresher every three years. The main employers of community servants see the introduction of such an E-learning tool as problematic for practical and financial reasons; they also warn of additional hurdles in finding a sufficient number of young men to fill positions – a number that is already decreasing due to a decline in population growth. In reaction to this decline, another main point of the reform package will give the government greater authority in deciding on which institutions will be allocated community servants in the first place. The government argues that this will allows it to place community servants to their greatest effect.
Debate on hidden party financing via think tanks
A recent report on the Defence Ministry’s grant of € 200,000 for a think tank linked to the FPÖ has spurred a debate on hidden party financing. Such grants are not out of the ordinary in Austria – even in cases where institutions are linked to political parties. The Ministry of Defence has granted thinks tanks that have close ties with other parties up to € 400.000 each, usually for outsourced research projects and studies. What has caused a stir in this case, however, is that the ISP, the institute in question, mainly focuses on Russia while being closely linked to a party that has repeatedly caused irritation for its relationship with Moscow.
A list of grants and a range of other services the Defence Ministry purchased externally in 2017 can be found here.
Header image: BKA/Dragan Tatic
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