In the last 12 months two EU populist parties that have formal cooperation agreements with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party have entered governing coalitions: the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Lega in Italy. Both parties control their respective interior ministries. In early June Matteo Salvini was appointed as Italy’s interior minister, while Austria’s interior minister is Herbert Kickl, a longstanding FPÖ party official.
That both parties manoeuvred themselves into control of their interior is probably not a coincidence—and the reason they may have done so is worthy of attention. The classic Russian definition of “power ministries” comprises those which control uniformed, armed personnel. In Western Europe this means the interior, defence, and justice ministries. Importantly, intelligence organizations also fall into this category.
In Austria, the FPÖ now controls the defence and foreign ministries in addition to the interior—and it has wasted no time in exploiting its power. In March a special unit of the Austrian police raided the domestic security service, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung (BVT). They also carried out raids on the homes of five BVT officials, including its director, Peter Gridling. The action was supposedly triggered by the BVT’s alleged mishandling of secret information and improper monitoring of the far Right. As Reuters reported, “The case has caused a political uproar amid fears the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which became the junior partner in the governing coalition in December, sought to secure intelligence on right-wing groups or sideline political opponents within the BVT—accusations it denies.”
There is every likelihood that these motives were in play. But what Reuters perhaps overlooks is the possibility that the raids were also intended to take possession of intelligence material provided by Austria’s partners, particularly the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Whether such material was then passed on to a third party is hard to know; the point is that once prised out of the hands of the BVT, its fate is obscure. This will have had a chilling effect on cooperation with the Western services. Indeed, in the wake of the raid Germany’s security service has already publicly questioned the reliability of its Austrian partner under the new government, saying Berlin may need to reassess bilateral intelligence ties.
According to one senior former intelligence officer, “in cases like this the cooperation rarely shuts down completely, but sometimes it goes into ‘preserve and protect’ mode. Sharing continues on a case-by-case basis and sometimes you might rely more on trusted individuals than the service as a whole. But intelligence sharing does fall off.” This of course creates a dilemma for friendly services: either risk intelligence falling into the hands of the opposition, or allow the relationship to atrophy. In the former case, hostile powers can seize the opportunity to read Western reporting, while in the latter they can deny access and try to present themselves as a replacement partner.
A further, less successful aim of the raids was to purge the senior ranks. In the wake of the raids the BVT’s director Peter Gridling was suspended pending an effort to replace him. Gridling’s suspension was struck down by the courts in late May, and he returned to his post.
Vienna occupies a unique and ambiguous position in European security. Espionage is legal on the territory of Austria, as long as Austria itself is not the target of the activity. This has made the city a favorite of intelligence services, who use it as a regional playground. Between Athens, Tallinn, and Vladivostok, practically everyone in public and business life has cause to pass through Vienna from time to time. It makes the city a perfect place to pitch, debrief, and reward agents without the unwelcome attention of state security. All of the major intelligence agencies maintain outsized stations in Vienna for this reason, as well as the presence of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since Austria is neutral and not a NATO member, there is no treaty obligation to collaborate with specific services. Tipping the Austrian security apparatus yet further towards Russia amounts to a major coup.
Salvini’s appointment as Italian interior minister is too recent to draw any conclusions from. However, the special status of interior ministries in the minds of KGB-trained personnel—who of course inhabit the Kremlin and control United Russia—suggests that every effort will be made to exploit the opportunity. The crucial question is whether or not Salvini is open to blandishments from the Lega’s Russian partners, and what leverage (if any) they possess; he may yet decide to assert his independence.
This is not a new phenomenon. In the late 1940s the Soviets used interior ministries as tools to undermine democracy in Central Europe as preparation for a wider power grab. The circumstances today are of course quite different, but the underlying struggle is much the same: Russia seeks to draw Southern, Central and Eastern European states away from Western Europe and the United States and to convert them into friendly satellites.
Following the defeat of the Third Reich, the Allies agreed that the USSR would exert the strongest influence in Central and Eastern Europe according to a percentage formula, and not to the complete exclusion of the Western powers. Moreover, there was no agreement for the communist system to be imposed; the polite formulation was that “socialist democracies” would emerge. Stalin, understanding his relative weakness at this point, opted to give the appearance of honoring this agreement, while actually infiltrating his Moscow-trained local cadres into the interior ministries, police, and secret police in each country. By the time the Allies realized that democratic opposition to communism had been throttled, it would be too late. As Robert Service writes in Comrades!, his history of communism:
A degree of political sobriety was called for. To this end [Stalin] stipulated that communist parties should advance behind the shield of multi-party democratic coalitions. He was willing to consider a ‘bloc’ even between communists and the Catholic Church. Such manoeuvres would get the Western Allies off his back as well as diffuse responsibility for the difficulties of post-war rule. With a modicum of cunning the communist ministers could secure portfolios enabling them to deal ruthlessly with political enemies. Wherever possible, they were told to take posts in the security and police forces.
Similarly, in Iron Curtain, Anne Applebaum writes:
To put it bluntly, the structure of the new secret police force was never left up to chance, circumstance or local politicians to determine. And although there were some differences in timing and style, the creation of the new secret police forces followed remarkably similar patterns across eastern Europe.
In Marxist-Leninist terms, what still matters in this view of the world is “structural power,” the ability to control an institution from the inside via nomenklatura. Even when the political masters have gone, they can leave cadres behind in the bureaucracy, the institutional equivalent of entryism. This forms one of the most powerful arguments for a depoliticized, professional civil service. But even Britain is starting to diverge from that principle as the state machinery is colonized by “special advisers” and politically appointed “czars.” Populist rhetoric about “the will of the people” and the stubbornness of legal and government institutions threatens to further erode their independence and commitment to the law, particularly in the case of security and law enforcement. This can be seen in the relentless political attacks on the FBI and the “deep state” by Trump and his supporters.
Austria is now part of a contiguous block of four states that Western services no longer fully trust and share intelligence with, alongside Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Italy, if it goes the same way, would join that sorry company, along with the likes of Cyprus and Malta.
At the political level both the Italian and Austrian governments are open in their pro-Russian orientation. Putin chose Austria for his first post-election foreign visit, while Italy is the only G7 state to join Trump in his call for Russia to be readmitted to the grouping. Both countries are also rolling out simultaneous interior-led measures against immigrants and Muslim minorities, and both oppose sanctions on Russia. In recent days Salvini has ordered a “census” of Italy’s Roma with the aim of expelling “illegals.” He added, “Unfortunately we will have to keep the Italian Roma because we can’t expel them.” One can only wonder what other solutions might be in store for them.
We are not living in the late 1940s, and the construction of police states is not imminent (although it should not be dismissed entirely; Salvini’s Roma decision and rhetoric has obvious fascist overtones). Europe is experiencing a sustained and determined Russian campaign to fracture NATO, the European Union, and the Transatlantic alliance. Undermining security cooperation and intelligence sharing among allies may yet prove to be one of the most effective, and overlooked, tools in the subversion kit. It is worth watching closely.