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COVID-19 VACCINES

How right-wing extremists are exploiting Austria’s vaccine debate

As Austria prepares to make vaccination against Covid-19 mandatory, intelligence services are concerned that protests against the country's restrictions are fertile ground for radicalisation.

Covid protest Vienna
The Covid-19 pandemic led to protests and a rise in anti-vaccination sentiment in Austria. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Some radicalised activists who reject Covid vaccines and anti-virus measures are crossing borders to join protests where extremist ideology is being spread, Austria’s new domestic intelligence chief told AFP, calling the trend “very scary”.

Omar Haijawi-Pirchner said foreign activists are travelling to Austria — where Covid vaccines will become mandatory next month — to demonstrate and hold “network meetings with their partners, right-wing extremists”.

He added that the often right-wing extremists were using the gatherings to spread their ideology, including anti-Semitism, and that “we see a lot of people that are very highly radicalised”.

EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s vaccine mandate compare to other countries?

From France to the Netherlands to Germany and Belgium, European countries have been rocked by anti-vaccine protests in recent months, as governments clamp down on the unvaccinated.

In Austria, tens of thousands have taken to the streets almost weekly since the government said Covid vaccines would become mandatory from February 4th. 

Haijawi-Pirchner, 41, who took over Austria’s newly reformed DSN intelligence agency in December, said the radicalisation of some activists and the protests’ increasingly international dimension were “very, very scary for
us”.

While the DSN is not responsible for foreign intelligence gathering, it has received information pointing to a large number of well-organised activists in Germany and Switzerland, Haijawi-Pirchner told AFP in his first interview with
foreign media since his appointment.

He said the DSN had seen credible threats of violence in Austria, pointing to clashes with the police on the sidelines of protests.

READ ALSO: Austria increases protection for hospitals and test centres after protests

There are “a lot of people threatening… critical infrastructure at the moment,” including the media, health facilities and politicians, he said.

The DSN that Haijawi-Pirchner leads replaced the former BVT agency as part of far-reaching intelligence reforms.

The BVT’s reputation had been tarnished by a string of what Haijawi-Pirchner discreetly refers to as “incidents” in recent years.

These included raids on the BVT ordered by the far-right then Interior Minister Herbert Kickl in 2018 and embarrassing accusations of Austrian officials leaking information to Russia.

This, along with the perceived closeness to Moscow of Kickl’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), led to reports that other Western agencies were refraining from sharing intelligence with Vienna.

Haijawi-Pirchner has come to the DSN from a successful police career in the Lower Austria region and emphasises the agency is a fresh start.

He says he has had a “lot of communication with our partners” in other countries in the last few months.

The current level of information sharing suggests that some confidence has returned, he says, but “we are fully aware… that this process of rebuilding trust” will take months or years.

The intelligence reform means the DSN is now a “hybrid” service encompassing both intelligence and police work, a structure Haijawi-Pirchner says has been well received among Austria’s allies.

The shake-up also aimed at addressing what Haijawi-Pirchner accepts were failures around November 2020’s deadly jihadist attack in Vienna, which followed missed warnings about the perpetrator’s activities.

Haijawi-Pirchner says the reforms have led to better communication between security services.

“You can never avoid a terrorist attack by 100 percent” he says.

But “the DSN is better prepared for such a situation than the BVT”, he added.

By Jastinder Khera

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COVID-19 ALERT

EXPLAINED: How Austria’s compulsory vaccine mandate could be back in June

The much-debated policy sparked controversy since before it was approved in February, meaning that May could be a definitive month in the country.

EXPLAINED: How Austria's compulsory vaccine mandate could be back in June

Austria’s Federal Government has a ticking time bomb on its hands: an ordinance that suspended its vaccine mandate law is set to expire by the end of May, which means that the controversial mandatory vaccination would be again in place as early as June 1st.

In order to keep that from happening, Austria’s Health Ministry needs to extend the current regulation or create a new one.

If it doesn’t, the Covid-19 mandatory vaccination law would automatically be back in June.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s plans to bring back the vaccine mandate?

Since, by June, the vaccine mandate stated that non-vaccinated would start getting fines, the resumption of the law would mean that, from next month, those who are not vaccinated could be fined in routine checks, such as traffic checks.

The ins and outs of the vaccine mandate

The law was first introduced in February, even though the technical requirements for it to be enacted were not in place. The first stage of it was purely “informational”, and Austrian residents received letters explaining about vaccines and about the regulation.

A second stage, when people could have been fined if they were not vaccinated, was set to start in mid-March. Before a single person was fined, though, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) suspended the law with an ordinance.

The law was suspended for a variety of reasons, primarily due to the relatively high vaccination coverage the country had already received, along with the lower virulence of the Omicron variant. 

READ ALSO: Austria to scrap mandatory Covid vaccinations

To create a new regulation or extend the existing one stopping people from being fined, Rauch must await the report of the vaccination commission, which should be ready in May, according to the Ministry.

The coronavirus commission will assess whether the Vaccination Act is suitable and useful from a medical and legal point of view. A previous report said there were arguments for and against mandatory vaccination for those who were completely unvaccinated.

READ ALSO: How Austria’s attempt to make vaccines mandatory changed the country

Der Standard reports there is little political support for compulsory vaccination and says there are still technical problems regarding automated fines. However, according to the Ministry of Health, the infrastructure should be completed in June.

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