Austria plunged into new political crisis but its foreign policy unlikely to change

Sebastian Kurz austria

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz submitted his resignation after being accused of participating in a corruption scandal that threatens to bring serious political turbulence to his country. Kurz’s decision to resign was made after the Austrian Prosecutor’s Office launched an investigation into his involvement in a corruption scandal where he allegedly spent state money for the purpose of promoting his party.

In response to the investigation, a Parliamentary session was announced at which a vote of confidence was taken. Kurz, despite the stated position that he would not step down, scheduled a press conference and announced his resignation as chancellor in favor of party colleague Alexander Schallenberg, the Minister of Foreign Affairs.

It appeared on Friday that it was almost certain that the government would fall because Kurz and his ministers announced that they would not resign. Also, when it seemed that the Government would inevitably fall last Tuesday when the opposition was supposed to submit a request for the recall of the entire government at the extraordinary parliamentary session, the Greens announced that they would support the centre-right Kurz Government.

According to Austrian media, Kurz’s ultimate decision to resign was either the result of pressure and the threat of facing more serious repercussions, or an attempt to try and preserve some kind of position and power.

“It would be irresponsible to fall into months of chaos and a dead end. I want to leave the place to someone else to prevent chaos,” Kurz said during his resignation.

However, chaos has not been prevented as the political crisis has existed since the Ibiza affair where officials of the Freedom Party, which was in coalition with Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party, were seeking foreign funds for their election campaign. This ultimately led to the fall of the coalition government in 2019. Effectively, every few months there is a new political scandal in Austria, whether it be minor or major, and mostly related to the state prosecutor's office and the Austrian People's Party. Although not well known outside of Austria, Kurz’s inner circle has been under investigation for more than a year on various corruption scandals.

Amidst this political crisis, a minority government could be created, but it would have to be comprised of the Greens, Socialists and Liberals with the support of the right-wing conservative Freedom Party, something that the Freedom Party president already said he would not support. There could be a broader coalition, but the Greens and the Liberals do not want to cooperate with the Freedom Party, even though the Socialists have shown readiness in principle. Due to these unrealistic outcomes, it is likely that Austria will go to early parliamentary elections next year.

Considering that the former Foreign Minister from the same party is taking Kurz’s place, it is expected that in the short-term there will be no major changes to Austria’s foreign policy. Kurz will remain in parliament at the head of the Party and is replaced at the Chancellery level by someone of his own choice.

It is reminded that Austria is one of three countries in the Western/Central European zone that is not a NATO member, along with the famously neutral Switzerland, and the other being the small Principality of Liechtenstein that has a total population of under 40,000. Both countries are direct neighbors of Austria. Because Austria is not constrained by NATO, it has cordial ties with Russia and not consumed by the chronic Russophobia that can be commonly be found in Central Europe.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the launching ceremony of the Cemix dry mix plant in the Bashkiria Region in August that: “This country [Austria] is one of our key partners in Europe, and we treat it exactly so, which was confirmed by the participation of its representatives - and this was the largest representation, too - at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, as well as by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s speech at the Forum’s plenary meeting.”

According to Putin, over 1,500 Austrian companies conduct business in Russia, with about $6 billion of accumulated investments. He noted that “the influx from Russia to the Austrian economy is just as big.”

In this way, if a centre-right government is removed from power in the next election, which could be soon following the current political crisis, it is uncertain in which direction Austrian foreign policy will go. Given the deep economic ties between Austria and Russia, even if a Green, Socialists and/or Liberal government was to come into power, it would be difficult to steer Vienna away from having a more balanced foreign policy.

However, as this political crisis is still unfolding, it is too difficult at this moment to see how Austria will emerge from this predicament.

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