Coronavirus: Austria Bans Gatherings Of More Than Five People

Medical staff, with protective clothing, stands at an entrance where patients are filtered at Kaiser-Franz-Josef-Spital (KFJ) hospital as part of the novel coronavirus epidemic on March 15, 2020 in Vienna. GEORG HOCHMUTH / APA / AFP.

 

Austria on Sunday banned gatherings of more than five people and told residents to go out only if necessary, in a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus.

Police would enforce new restrictions on public life, the government said, threatening fines for non-compliance.

The tougher measures were decided at an extraordinary session of parliament, during which Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called on the population to self-isolate and limit contacts to “the people they live with”.

People should leave home only to work, buy food or help others, he said.

“The freedom of movement in our country is going to be massively limited,” Kurz said, adding the measures were “necessary to defend the health of the Austrian people”.

By Sunday, Austria had registered 800 coronavirus cases and two deaths.

Cafes, restaurants, playgrounds and sports facilities will now also be shut down, following Friday’s decision to close non-essential shops.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus: Land Borders Shut, Flights Stopped In Western Libya

Any outdoor gatherings would be broken up, Kurz said, and people would be allowed to go out either alone or accompanied by people they live with, he said in a statement.

Kurz said Austria was facing “demanding, difficult and painful weeks”.

The government is now also suspending air travel with Britain, the Netherlands, Russia and Ukraine, having earlier put Italy, Spain, France and Switzerland on the list.

The Tyrol region, on the border with Italy, is being practically locked down for a week.

AFP

Avalanche Kills Five People In Austria – Police

 

A major avalanche swept five people to their deaths on a mountain in Upper Austria on Sunday, police said.

The bodies of the five, who were among a sports group from Czech Republic, were brought down from 2,800 metres up the Dachstein mountain to Hallstatt village for identification, a police spokesman said.

Details later…

Sebastian Kurz Sworn In As World’s Youngest Chancellor

Newly inaugurated Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz talks next to former interim Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein as he gives a statement at the Austrian Chancellery after a swearing-in ceremony of the new coalition government on January 7, 2020, in Vienna, Austria. PHOTO: ROBERT JAEGER / APA / AFP

 

The leader of Austria’s conservatives Sebastian Kurz was sworn in Tuesday as the world’s youngest democratically elected leader, at the head of an unlikely coalition with the Greens following the collapse of his previous alliance with the far-right.

Vowing to “protect the climate and the borders”, the 33-year-old has become chancellor of the Alpine country’s first government to include the Greens, an arrangement called “exotic” and “unlikely” by Austrian media.

Speaking at a handover ceremony with his predecessor Brigitte Bierlein, Kurz said it was “good to be able to continue working for Austria” and promised: “We will strive every day to give our best.”

Kurz’s People’s Party (OeVP) and the Greens agreed last week to govern together after the last administration with the far-right fell apart in a corruption scandal. Both the OeVP and the ecologist party made key gains in September’s snap polls.

President Alexander Van der Bellen reminded the new government that “citizens have great expectations of you,” adding that “trust must be rebuilt”.

The new government aims to please both parties by pushing for Austria to be carbon neutral by 2040 and also continuing previous strict anti-immigration measures.

Some observers think that if successful the alliance could become a model for other European countries as nations across the continent grapple with populist sentiments but also climate change.

 ‘Best of both worlds’

Kurz — whose conservative OeVP has been in government for more than three decades — has defended the undertaking as combining “the best of both worlds”.

The OeVP has 10 ministers in the new coalition, while the Greens have four with its party chief Werner Kogler, 58, taking on the vice-chancellorship.

Among the ministers being sworn in on Tuesday, more than half are women, including the defence minister. Many are in their 30s and 40s.

A Green politician and former activist will front an enlarged environment ministry, which includes traffic, energy, and technology as well.

The Greens have also nominated an openly lesbian party veteran to hold the culture portfolio, while a Green legal expert of Bosnian origin, who arrived in Austria as a child refugee, will head the justice ministry.

No ‘love marriage’

But for all that’s new, it’s not a “love marriage”, according to analyst Johannes Huber.

“As he (Kurz) says at every opportunity, they are very different parties”, which have always been rivals rather than allies on a national level until now, Huber told AFP.

And their detractors are many, including some in their own ranks.

The Far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) — the third strongest party in parliament after the OeVP and the Social Democrats (SPOe) — was quick to denounce Kurz’s “swing to the left” and the “dangerous experiment” out of which “nothing good” can come for the country of 8.8 million people.

The SPOe too criticised the new government’s programme, saying social questions hadn’t been addressed well enough.

Kurz first became the world’s youngest chancellor in a government with the FPOe from December 2017 until May last year, driving a hard line against immigration and brushing off a steady stream of racist and anti-Semitic incidents involving his far-right colleagues.

But then the FPOe leader and vice-chancellor became engulfed in a graft scandal, leading to the collapse of the coalition and snap elections.

Disappointed FPOe supporters dealt the party a setback in the polls, many shifting their votes to the OeVP which won 37.5 percent — an increase of almost six points from 2017.

The Greens, who failed to get into parliament in a shock result in 2017, garnered 13.8 percent as climate change replaced immigration as a top voter concern.

Party officials have said they have had to make “painful” compromises to reach the agreement with the powerful conservatives.

“The Greens are very pragmatic… It is important for the party to take on responsibility on a national level,” Huber said.

Kurz has promised Austrians a stable government for the next five years.

However, “the new coalition has not provided a complete answer on how they plan to finance their fiscal plans,” according to analyst Katharina Koenz of Oxford Economics.

AFP

ATP Cup: Thiem Slumps As Croatia Upset Austria

Borna Coric of Croatia hits a return during his men’s singles match against Dominic Thiem of Austria at the ATP Cup tennis tournament in Sydney on January 4, 2020. William WEST / AFP

 

Borna Coric earned some badly-needed confidence with a big upset over world number four Dominic Thiem in stifling hot conditions at the ATP Cup Saturday as Austria slumped to defeat against a battling Croatia.

Thiem had won all three previous encounters with the 28th ranked Coric but failed to rediscover that form in Sydney, crashing 7-6 (7/4), 2-6, 6-3.

Veteran Marin Cilic, a finalist at the 2018 Australian Open, earlier used his experience to down Austria’s Dennis Novak 6-7 (7/4), 6-4, 6-4, with Croatia taking an unassailable 2-0 lead in the Group E tie at the 24-team event.

“It was really hot in the beginning but in the second set I started to feel better because I think the temperature went down,” said Coric.

“But it was really physical. It’s really nice to beat him because at the end of last season I was not playing well and this will give me a lot of confidence.

Coric had six losses in a row at the end of 2019 but dug deep against Thiem, who worked six break points in the third set but couldn’t convert any of them.

Former world number three Cilic showed similar fight in his tough three set victory.

“I’m very excited. It was absolutely very difficult,” said Cilic, who has fallen to 39 in the world, his lowest since 2013.

“Dennis played a great level. It was our first meeting, and it was absolutely a thriller and difficult match… and also a great match to start the year. I think the level was really, really good.”

Cilic sent down 15 aces and won all of his service games after losing the opening set.

Earlier in Group E, Poland’s top player Hubert Hurkacz stunned Argentinian pocket-rocket Diego Schwartzman, who blamed searing heat for his defeat.

Temperatures soared well above 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) in Sydney, although fears that smoke haze from bushfires burning across New South Wales could impact the action proved unfounded.

World number 14 Schwartzman, one of the smallest players on tour at just 5ft 7ins (1.70 metres), looked destined for victory after winning the first set but wilted 4-6, 6-2, 6-3.

Guido Pella, ranked 25, had earlier battled past Kamil Majchrzak 6-2, 2-6, 6-2 to give Argentina the edge in their tie.

Hurkacz returned to partner two-time Grand Slam winner Lukasz Kubot in a deciding doubles rubber, but his energy was sapped and they fell 6-2, 6-4 to Maximo Gonzalez and Andres Molteni, handing Argentina a 2-1 victory.

“The first match with this weather, you know, 45 degrees inside the court, difficult to play, difficult to be ready every single point,” said Schwartzman, who has improved his year-end ranking in four straight seasons.

“Then I think he deserved to win. He played much better than me.

“You know, that part of the game with this weather, it’s difficult to do every point. So every single point was difficult for me at the end,” he added.

AFP

Liverpool Sign Japanese Star Minamino For $9.5 million

Salzburg’s Japanese midfielder Takumi Minamino (c) and Liverpool’s Scotland’s defender Andrew Robertson (l) vie for the ball during the UEFA Champions League Group E football match between RB Salzburg and Liverpool FC on December 10, 2019 in Salzburg, Austria. PHOTO: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

 

Japanese international Takumi Minamino signed for Champions League holders Liverpool on Thursday for a reported fee of £7.25 million ($9.5 million) from Austrian outfit Red Bull Salzburg, the Premier League leaders announced.

The 24-year-old forward — who impressed Liverpool in their two Champions League group matches this season with the Austrian side — is believed to have signed a four-and-a-half-year contract.

“Liverpool Football Club can confirm an agreement has been reached with Red Bull Salzburg for the transfer of Takumi Minamino,” the club said in a statement on their website.

Minamino — who scored in the 4-3 defeat by Liverpool at Anfield in October — said it fulfilled a dream.

“It has been a dream, my dream to become a Liverpool player,” he told Liverpool.com.

“And I’m so excited that the moment has come true.

“To play in the Premier League was one of my targets.

“I think this is the top-class league in the world; I was thinking if my career as a footballer progressed smoothly, someday I would be able to play in the Premier League.

“But I never thought I would be able to play in this team and I’m really happy about it.”

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said Minamino was a courageous player.

“He is very quick and a very brave player,” said Klopp.

“He is brave with the ball but also brave without the ball.”

Liverpool — whose senior squad are preparing for Saturday’s Club World Cup final in Qatar — activated Minamino’s release clause last week.

He will be free to play for them from January 1 and could be involved in the FA Cup third-round tie at home to city rivals Everton on January 5.

His move brings an end to his five-year spell with Salzburg, whom he joined from Cerezo Osaka in January 2015.

In total, Minamino made 199 appearances for Salzburg, scoring 64 goals, while he has earned 22 caps for Japan and scored 11 times since making his debut in October 2015.

AFP

Austrian Chancellor Loses No-Confidence Vote Over Corruption Allegation

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks during a session of the parliament before a confidence vote on May 27, 2019 in Vienna following the fallout from the “Ibiza-gate” scandal
ROLAND SCHLAGER / APA / AFP

 

Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Monday became the first chancellor in the country’s post-war history to be removed from office by a no-confidence vote over a corruption scandal that had already brought down his coalition with the far-right.

The motion against Kurz and his cabinet is the latest fallout from the so-called “Ibiza-gate” scandal, which saw far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) leader and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resign from both posts after he was caught appearing to offer public contracts in return for campaign help from a fake Russian backer.

The video led to Kurz ending his coalition with the FPOe and calling early elections for later this year.

READ ALSO: Four Killed In Indonesia’s Post-Election Violence

But that did not stop opposition parties tabling the no-confidence motion and insisting that the 32-year-old leader must also take responsibility for the scandal.

Despite Monday’s vote, Kurz will take comfort in a big win for his conservative People’s Party (OeVP) in Sunday’s European elections, which is projected to gain 34.9 percent of the vote and two extra European parliament seats.

Addressing cheering party supporters on Monday evening in buoyant mood, Kurz denounced what he called the “new coalition” of the FPOe and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe), who had joined forces in parliament out of “hatred” for the OeVP and voted for the motion.

Presenting himself as a figure of stability in Austria’s current turmoil, Kurz said: “I’m still here, I’m standing for you.”

“We can be sure that they will attack us… but they can’t stop the change that we are putting in motion,” he added, referring to the upcoming election campaign.

He also pledged his support for the technocratic government now expected to be appointed by President Alexander Van der Bellen.

Van der Bellen later appointed Finance Minister Hartwig Loeger to carry out the government’s duties in the meantime.

‘Unprecedented Power Grab’

The no-confidence vote against Kurz and his government took place in a special sitting of parliament with more than half of MPs withdrawing their support, making him Austria’s shortest-serving chancellor.

Submitting the motion against Kurz, the head of the SPOe, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, accused him of an unprecedented “uncurbed and shameless power grab”.

The scandal erupted following the publication on May 17 of hidden-camera recordings filmed in a luxury villa on the holiday island of Ibiza a few months before Austria’s last parliamentary elections in 2017.

Amid a welter of embarrassing comments, Strache also appeared to allude to a scheme channelling political donations through FPOe-linked foundations in order to avoid legal scrutiny.

After Strache’s resignation, Kurz also sacked FPOe interior minister Herbert Kickl, arguing he could not oversee any possible investigation into his own party’s wrongdoing.

FPOe ministers responded by walking out of the government en masse, leading to Kurz appointing experts to take their place in an interim government.

Far-Right Comeback?

The FPOe, meanwhile, seemed to have suffered a setback in Sunday’s European parliamentary elections as a result of “Ibiza-gate”, falling from 19.7 percent to 17.2 percent and losing one of their four MEPs.

However, the FPOe leadership insists that the share of votes shows they have a solid electoral base and that they can bounce back in time for the parliamentary elections.

When he first became chancellor in late 2017, Kurz was widely hailed on the European right as someone who could successfully tap into surging anti-immigration sentiment while projecting a polished demeanour.

But even before the current crisis, Kurz found himself constantly having to bat away criticism for alleged extremist sympathies among FPOe members.

The opposition has placed the blame for the current debacle squarely at the feet of Kurz himself for having invited the far-right into government in the first place, saying he had ample warning of the unsuitability of the FPOe for the government.

Kurz has trod a fine line in his statements since the crisis broke, admitting he found the FPOe’s antics “hard to swallow” but insisting he had no other choice.

“There was no other party which was ready to form a coalition with us,” he told journalists on Thursday when asked whether he regretted the coalition.

AFP

Austrian Chancellor Set To Lose No-Confidence Vote

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attends a session of the parliament before a confidence vote on May 27, 2019 in Vienna following the fallout from the “Ibiza-gate” scandal that toppled his coalition with the far right.  ALEX HALADA / AFP

 

Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was set Monday to lose a no-confidence vote in parliament, which will see him removed from office over a corruption scandal that brought down his coalition government.

Norbert Hofer, chief of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), said Monday that his party “will support” the motion, which is also backed by the main opposition Social Democrats (SPOe).

The move comes just after Kurz celebrated a big win for his conservative People’s Party (OeVP) in Sunday’s European elections, which is projected to gain 34.9 per cent of the vote and two extra European parliament seats.

It comes in the wake of the so-called “Ibiza-gate” scandal, which saw FPOe leader and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resign from both posts after he was caught appearing to offer public contracts in return for campaign help from a fake Russian backer.

That led to Kurz ending his coalition with the FPOe and calling early elections for the autumn, but the opposition says the 32-year-old leader must also take responsibility for the scandal.

The no-confidence vote against Kurz and his government is set to take place in a special sitting of parliament later Monday, making him the shortest-serving chancellor, as well as the first in post-war Austrian history to be removed in this fashion.

While the environmental Jetzt party is also expected to back the motion against the chancellor, the liberal NEOS party said it would be voting against it to avoid further instability.

Once Kurz’s government is removed, it would be up to President Alexander Van der Bellen to appoint experts to lead the government and all the ministries until the elections.

 Far-right setback 

The far-right, meanwhile, seemed to have suffered a setback in Sunday’s vote over “Ibiza-gate”, falling from 19.7 per cent to 17.2 per cent and losing one of their four MEPs.

The scandal erupted following the publication on May 17 of hidden-camera recordings filmed in a luxury villa on the holiday island of Ibiza a few months before Austria’s last parliamentary elections in 2017.

Amid a welter of embarrassing comments, Strache appeared to allude to a scheme channelling political donations through FPOe-linked foundations in order to avoid legal scrutiny.

After Strache’s resignation, Kurz also sacked FPOe interior minister Herbert Kickl, arguing he could not oversee any possible investigation into his own party’s wrongdoing.

FPOe ministers responded by walking out of the government en masse, leading to Kurz appointing experts to take their place in an interim government.

Paragon of stability 

When he first became chancellor in late 2017, Kurz was widely hailed on the European right as someone who could successfully tap into surging anti-immigration sentiment while projecting a polished demeanour.

Since the crisis broke, he has projected himself as a paragon of stability in a turbulent political climate, and analysts say this will be a key message for him to use.

But even before the current crisis, Kurz found himself constantly having to bat away criticism for alleged extremist sympathies among FPOe members.

The opposition has placed the blame for the current debacle squarely at the feet of Kurz himself for having invited the far-right into government in the first place, saying he had ample warning of the unsuitability of the FPOe for the government.

Kurz has trod a fine line in his statements since the crisis broke, admitting he found the FPOe’s antics “hard to swallow” but insisting he had no other choice.

“There was no other party which was ready to form a coalition with us,” he told journalists on Thursday when asked whether he regretted the coalition.

AFP

Far-Right Ministers To Resign From Austria Govt After Scandal

Austrian Transport Minister and designated leader of far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) Norbert Hofer (L) and Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (FPOe) address a press conference, on May 20, 2019, in Vienna.  HANS PUNZ / APA / AFP

 

Austrian far-right ministers on Monday were ready to quit their posts, the party chief said after the country’s coalition government collapsed over a corruption scandal days before European elections.

Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has called for fresh elections after a hidden-camera sting forced his far-right deputy to resign, bringing an end to a coalition many on the European right held up as a model.

With Kurz scrambling to regain control over the weekend, saying he can no longer tolerate the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) scandals, media speculation is growing he will also oust far-right Interior Minister Herbert Kickl.

READ ALSO: Thousands Protest Alabama Abortion Law

The FPOe closed ranks behind Kickl, threatening to quit their cabinet posts, which besides the interior ministry include the foreign, defence, transport and social affairs ministries.

“We will give up our government offices if Interior Minister Herbert Kickl is forced out,” Norbert Hofer, who is infrastructure minister and took over the FPOe leadership on Sunday, told a press conference.

“I feel very sorry that such a great government project ends so soon… I think this government was very popular,” he said, adding that Kickl had done “nothing wrong”.

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen on Sunday suggested elections be held in early September with a date to be fixed after further talks with other parties.

 Fake Russian backer 

Heinz-Christian Strache stepped down as vice-chancellor and FPOe leader after recordings published by German media Friday showed him offering government contracts in return for campaign help to a fake Russian backer in a villa on the resort island of Ibiza.

Elsewhere in the footage, Strache appears to hint at ways political donations could escape legal scrutiny.

Kickl was FPOe secretary general at the time when any political donations would have been made. Strache on Saturday denied the party had received illegal funds.

“It is clear Herbert Kickl cannot investigate himself,” Kurz was quoted by the Kurier newspaper on Monday.

He has said the recordings were the final straw in a string of FPOe-related scandals.

The most damaging recent controversy linked to interior minister Kickl was last year when he ordered raids on the country’s own domestic intelligence agency BVT.

Numerous documents were seized, raising fears among Austria’s Western partners about the possibility of leaks to Moscow.

The FPOe has a cooperation agreement with President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.

 Thousands demonstrate 

Over the weekend thousands of people demonstrated in Vienna against the government at an impromptu gathering in front of the chancellery on Saturday, as well as at a previously planned pro-EU rally on Sunday.

In an emotional resignation statement Saturday, Strache said he had been “stupid” and “irresponsible” but was the victim of a “targeted political attack”.

In the recordings — of unknown origin — Strache and a colleague from his party, who has also resigned, are seen talking to a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.

They discuss how she could gain control of the country’s largest-circulation tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung, and install editorial staff who would help the FPOe’s 2017 election campaign.

In return, Strache held out the possibility of awarding public contracts.

The Kremlin on Monday denied any involvement in the sting operation.

The scandal has already made waves outside of Austria.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the weekend reacted to the scandal by warning of the dangers of far-right politicians “for sale”, who wanted to “destroy the Europe of our values”.

The scandal may also dent the prospects of the far-right populist alliance marshalled by Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, in which the FPOe plays a key part.

AFP

Three Dead, Four Missing After Heavy Snow In Austria

Skiers make their way through the streets after heavy snowfall in the small village of Filzmoos, Austria, on January 7, 2019. Christof STACHE / AFP

 

Three skiers in Austria died at the weekend and four others are still missing after heavy snowfall plunged large parts of the country into chaos, authorities said on Monday.

Two German skiers were killed in avalanches in the western region of Vorarlberg on Sunday, while a Slovenian skier also died in the region of Salzburg, rescue services said.

Four snowshoe-hikers have been reported missing, also in the Salzburg region.

Up to 1.5 metres (five feet) of snow have fallen in the centre and north of Austria since the middle of last week, with up to three metres of snow in the mountains around Salzburg, meteorological services said.

Around 2,000 people, including tourists, found themselves cut off in villages in the Soelktal valley in Styria.

Army helicopters used in avalanche rescue operations were grounded due to the bad weather.

And in the Hochkar mountain range in Lower Austria, ski resorts were closed until further notice, with inhabitants and tourists requested to vacate the area.

More snow is expected this week, with up to 80 centimetres forecast from Tuesday.

AFP

Teenager Killed In Firework Mishap

Fireworks explode over the Chao Phraya River during New Year celebrations in Bangkok at the start of January 1, 2019 Krit Promsakla Na Sakolnakorn / AFP

 

An Austrian teenager died trying to set off a powerful firework on New Year’s Eve, police said Tuesday.

The 17-year-old sustained fatal head injuries while he attempted to light the fuse, which malfunctioned and exploded at a party in Eberschwang in Upper Austria.

Police said they have launched an investigation to determine the origin of the device, which may not have been obtained legally.

Across Austria, around a dozen people were wounded in firework-related mishaps, according to officials.

AFP

Osinbajo To Attend Africa, Europe Heads Of Govt Meeting In Austria

Vice President YemiOsinbajo

Vice President Yemi Osinbajo would join other African and European leaders for a meeting in Vienna, the Austrian capital holding on Monday, December 17 and Tuesday, December 18.

In a statement on Monday by the Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Laolu Akande, the Vice President is expected to deliver a talk during the Africa-Europe High-Level Forum with other African and European Heads of States or Government.

Speaking on the forum’s theme ‘Taking cooperation to the digital age,’ Osinbajo would promote innovation and digitalisation for the benefit of participants.

The forum aims at assessing “how current partnerships between Africa and Europe contribute to this goal, complementing the ongoing implementation of the joint declaration of the 2017 Abidjan Summit between the African Union and the European Union.”

The African and European leaders would also highlight the “importance of unlocking the potential of the digital economy for Africa and Europe. It also aims at contributing to the Africa-Europe Alliance for Sustainable Investment and Jobs.”

The Vice President would also use the opportunity of his trip to hold a town-hall meeting with the Nigerian community in Austria.

He is also expected to attend several bilateral meetings with European government leaders, including the Prime Minister of Czech Republic, Andrej Babis; Prime Minister of Finland, H.E. Juha Petri Sipilä; the Federal Chancellor of Austria, His Excellency, Sebastian Kurz; and the UK Minister for Africa, Harriet Baldwin.

Before his expected return to the country on Tuesday, Osinbajo would also meet with top officials of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Austria Accuses Colonel Of Spying For Russia For Decades

Austria Flag

 

Austria has a launched a probe into a colonel suspected of spying for Russia for several decades, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Friday, the latest in a string of cases where Moscow has been accused of espionage in EU states.

Kurz told a press conference that the 70-year-old army official, now retired, is suspected to have begun working with Russian intelligence in the 1990s and carried on until 2018.

The public prosecutor’s office in Salzburg province confirmed the colonel was being investigated for the crime of revealing state secrets.

Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl has summoned the Russian charge d’affaires over the matter and cancelled an upcoming trip to Russia.

Russia’s foreign ministry meanwhile said it was calling in the Austrian ambassador to discuss the issue.

“Of course if such cases are confirmed, whether it be in the Netherlands or in Austria, it can’t improve the relationship between the EU and Russia,” Kurz told reporters in Vienna.

He was referring to the expulsion of four Russian agents by the Netherlands in April for allegedly planning a cyber-attack on the world’s chemical weapons watchdog in The Hague.

“Russian spying in Europe is unacceptable and to be condemned,” the chancellor added.

He said that Austria was “demanding transparent information from the Russian side” and that it would consult its European partners on further steps.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he had been “unpleasantly surprised” by the news from Vienna.

“Recently our Western partners have made it a rule not to use traditional diplomacy, but instead so-called ‘megaphone diplomacy’ by publicly accusing us and for explanations about matters we know nothing about,” he told a press conference.

“We will call (the Austrian ambassador’s) attention to the methods that must be used if you have questions to put to Russia,” Lavrov added.

 Equipment handed over 

Austrian Defence Minister Mario Kunasek said the case came to light “a few weeks ago” as a result of information from another European intelligence agency.

“We can’t say for the moment whether this is an isolated incident or not,” Kunasek said.

He said that the colonel had handed over “technical equipment” including his laptop which was now being examined.

Kunasek said that under questioning, the colonel said the Russians had been interested “in weapons systems, in the migration situation here in Austria in recent years”.

“Profiles of certain people were also created and passed on,” Kunasek said.

The case indicated that “even after the end of the Cold War, spying has continued and shows us the need to tighten our security network, within Austria and within the defence ministry,” Kunasek said.

According to Austrian press reports, the colonel was paid 300,000 euros ($340,000) for his services.

Russian links 

Austria is not a member of NATO and sets great store by its status as a neutral country.

As such it was one of the few European countries not to expel Russian diplomats following the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain in March.

Austria’s relationship with Russia has come under particular scrutiny since the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) entered government in coalition last December.

The FPOe — which nominated Kneissl and of which Kunasek is also a member — has had a “cooperation pact” with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party since 2016.

In August, Kneissl caused controversy by inviting Putin as a guest of honour to her wedding.

In addition, the FPOe Interior Minister Herbert Kickl admitted in September that Austria had been asked to take “trust-building measures” to retain cooperation with allied secret services.

It followed reports that Western secret services were increasingly wary of sharing information with Austria over concerns it could be passed to Moscow.

Earlier this week the Austrian Falter weekly published what it said was a document from the Finnish domestic intelligence agency in which it asked for information from partner countries but specifically excluded Vienna’s BVT agency.

AFP