‘Ibizagate’: What you need to know about the Austrian political corruption scandal

The 'Ibizagate' political scandal is still shaking up Austrian politics three years after it broke. Here is what you need to know about it.

'Ibizagate': What you need to know about the Austrian political corruption scandal
Austria's former Vice-Chancellor and disgraced former leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache gives his private statement in Vienna, Austria. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

The Ibiza scandal – nicknamed Ibizagate by Austrian media – can be traced back to a meeting in 2017 on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza between Strache, then leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), and a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch.

Strache was filmed promising the woman state contracts in exchange for helping his party to campaign for elections on an anti-migration, anti-Islam plank.

Strache also discussed the possibility of the woman buying Austria’s most-read tabloid, Kronen Zeitung, and making its editorial line more pro-FPOe.

He did not know the meeting was a sting and that he was being filmed.

The video surfaced in German media in May 2019 and led to the collapse of a coalition government composed of the FPOe and the centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

What charges have been brought? 

Strache claimed in the video that several high-profile billionaires, as well as international gambling company Novomatic, had funded political parties through illegal donations to associations.

All those named by Strache deny any wrongdoing. Strache attributed what he said in the video to intoxication and claimed he may have been drugged.

So far only Julian Hessenthaler, a private detective who helped orchestrate the video, has been arrested, based on drug-related offences for which he faces 15 years in prison.

However, a judicial investigation launched after the video was released led to the seizure of mobile phones belonging to Strache and several other politicians, which opened the way for no fewer than 12 separate probes into allegations of wrongdoing.

The trial revolves around charges that Strache offered to change a law to help an FPOe donor friend of his secure public funding for his private hospital – Strache was found guilty years later.

READ ALSO: Former Austrian vice chancellor convicted over corruption

What is the crrent fallout? 

One of the investigations focuses on alleged ties between Novomatic and senior political figures. The most high-profile target is OeVP Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel, a close confidant and ally of Kurz.

It is looking into possible payments made by Novomatic to the OeVP in return for “help… with tax liability that the business was facing abroad”, according to prosecutors.

Bluemel attracted ridicule when investigators raided his home in February, right as his partner took his laptop out for a stroll with the couple’s baby.

Bluemel and Novomatic deny any wrongdoing – the Finance Minister later resigned his position, saying he wanted to go into private sector and spend time with his family.

The fall of the chancellor

Kurz and Bluemel have both also hit the headlines for allegedly helping civil servant Thomas Schmid clinch a lucrative post as head of OeBAG, a company that administers the Austrian state’s holdings in various companies.

In leaked chat messages referring to the process of setting up OeBAG, Kurz wrote to Schmid: “You get everything you want,” adding several “kiss” emojis, to which Schmid replied: “I’m so happy :-))) I love my chancellor.”

Investigators have also since discovered chats suggesting that Schmid helped write the specifications for the job he applied for.

READ ALSO: Profile: Austria’s ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the one-time ‘Wunderkind’

Kurz is also under investigation for making false statements to a parliamentary committee over the affair, an offence that can carry a prison sentence of three years. He was also implicated in an investigation over whether or not he, with the help of the Finance Ministry, bribed Austrian media to publish positive polls before his election.

After pressure from coalition partners, and the opposition, he resigned as chancellor and, weeks later, left politics altogether

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Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen has hit out at Austria's naturalisation process, saying "the hurdles are too high". But how hard is it to get Austrian citizenship - and will the criticism lead to change?

Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Austria’s federal president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is eyeing a second term in office in the autumn elections, has said that the hurdles for citizenship are too high in the alpine country.

“Citizenship is a valuable asset. I think the hurdles for obtaining it are too high.”, he said in an interview with the newspaper Kleine Zeitung.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

Van der Bellen mentioned a case with a German citizen who has lived in Austria for 20 years and cannot obtain dual citizenship: “He can vote neither here nor there. And that is the European Union?”

Austria does not allow for dual citizenship of naturalised citizens except in very few cases (including naturalisation of those who are descendants of Holocaust victims).

This is one of the many hurdles to citizenship in the country.

What makes Austrian citizenship so difficult to get?

Citizenship through naturalisation, meaning you are not the son or daughter of an Austrian citizen, is particularly hard to get.

First of all, the majority of applicants will need to give up any other citizenships they hold. So, a British citizen taking Austrian nationality through marriage or residence time will have to give up their British passport.

READ ALSO: Which European countries have the toughest rules for gaining citizenship?

Besides severing that connection to a home country where people might still have many ties, this can lead to difficulties in matters of inheritance and property ownership, for example.

The naturalisation process is also long and expensive in Austria. In Vienna, the application costs €130. If successful, the new Austrian citizen can expect to pay from € 1,100 to € 1,500 just for the award – that doesn’t include costs with documentation, translation, and issuance of documents such as an Austrian passport.

The length of the process varies, but it can take more than a year for citizenship to be awarded.

The requirements will also be different depending on how long the person is legally an Austrian resident and what is their connection to the country.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Austrian passport if born in Austria?

For example, after 30 years of residence in Austria, you need to prove you are not a danger to the country and that you can support yourself.

You also need to prove German skills and pass a citizenship test.

The minimum amount of time of legal residency after which you can require citizenship is six years for people who fall into specific categories, such as legal and uninterrupted residence in Austria and possession of the citizenship of an EEA state, birth in Austria or German at a B2 level.

Will Austria change its citizenship rules?

It is improbable that there will be any significant changes soon. Despite Van der Bellen’s statements, citizenship laws are not within the federal president’s competence and mostly depend on legislative changes.

The party leading the ruling coalition, ÖVP, is against any changes, claiming that making the process easier would “depreciate” Austrian citizenship.

READ ALSO: ​​Why has naturalisation doubled in 2022 – and who are Austria’s new citizens?

Austria has recently seen a jump in naturalisation numbers, but that can largely be viewed as a one-off phenomenon after changes in the process for descendants of Nazi victims.

While junior partner Greens have been in favour of easing some rules, little is expected to happen with the ÖVP in power. The next parliamentary elections are set for 2024, though. If the SPÖ continues climbing in the polls, an SPÖ-Green coalition could push forward different rules.

Also, if the Red-Green-Yellow ruling coalition in Germany does succeed in easing naturalisation rules in the neighbouring country, Austria could see further pressure for domestic changes.

But that remains to be seen, mainly depending on the 2024 election results.