Caught in the Trap

Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of Austria's right-wing populist FPÖ party, met with a purported Russian multimillionaire on Ibiza in July 2017. She offered him campaign support in exchange for public contracts. What he didn't know was that the entire exchange was being recorded by hidden cameras.

By Leila Al-Serori, Oliver Das Gupta, Peter Münch, Frederik Obermaier und Bastian Obermayer

It's an incredible video. It was created at the end of July 2017, three months before Austria's general election that October. Following the election, Heinz-Christian Strache would rise to become the country's vice-chancellor.

The video shows Strache, leader of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), and fellow party member Johann Gudenus, deputy mayor of Vienna at the time, meeting with a woman in a luxurious holiday villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza. The elegant, svelte woman with long hair and dressed in a black designer dress and high heels was introduced to them as Alyona Makarova, the purported niece of Igor Makarov, a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin. Extremely rich, of course, and able to conduct business practically anywhere she wanted because she was also in possession of an EU passport from Latvia.

Editor's note: The decoy herself cannot be seen in any of the videos shown here. Recognizable in the video are Heinz-Christian Strache (with glasses), Johann Gudenus (in a blue T-shirt) as well as his wife Tajana.

Heinz-Christian Strache enjoyed a meal of sea bass carpaccio, tuna tartare and sushi, accompanied by top shelf vodka and can-after-can of Red Bull, which Strache is known to like – after which the purported Russian then made him an extremely dubious offer. She said she wanted to invest a few hundred million euros in Austria – and she wanted to know whether they could work together on the matter. Whether she, the purported niece of a Russian oligarch, and the FPÖ could both benefit from the collaboration.

The supposed investor already had a plan: She proposed acquiring a 50-percent stake in the Kronen Zeitung, a highly influential Austrian tabloid, and to use the newspaper as a mouthpiece backing Strache and his FPÖ party in the election campaign. Strache, dressed casually in a slightly ratty T-shirt and jeans, seemed enthusiastic – mostly about the proposal, but also about the woman herself. "Are you kidding? She's hot," he said, with a Viennese lilt.

Strache spoke for more than six hours with the woman, alternately whispering and roaring, lecturing and gesticulating. He smoked one cigarette after the other and chewed his nails nervously. Perhaps because he could hardly believe his luck? Or perhaps because he had a suspicion that his luck couldn't be trusted?

Ultimately, a deal took shape in that room in the Ibiza villa on that July day in 2017: Russian money of uncertain provenance would help boost the FPÖ's election results. And it goes without saying that the woman purporting to be Alyona Makarova would also get something out of it.

That night, switching between Russian and English, she repeatedly asked what she would get in return after the election if, as planned, Strache were to become part of the government. The woman had a confidant at her side in the villa, a middle-aged man in white trousers and a blue shirt, who did most of the talking when it came to the sensitive negotiations. He demanded, in German, that they be granted the kind of blatant financial advantages that only a government can provide. There is a term that is normally used to describe deals of the kind that were discussed in the room that night: Corruption.

But Heinz-Christian Strache, who is fond of presenting himself as the man cleaning up Austrian politics, didn't stand up and leave as one might have expected him to do in such a situation. Instead, while he repeatedly emphasized during the conversation that he was only available for legal deals, he would quickly turn around and agree to proposals that, if implemented, would clearly be illegal. The matters discussed included the question of whether the FPÖ, if it became part of a coalition government, would be in a position to award artificially inflated government contracts to the purported Russian. They also talked about the possibility of the Russian woman making a donation to the FPÖ party that could be concealed by way of an association.

The Russian woman's apparent confidant said her money wasn't "actually entirely legal" and described the deal as "legally tricky." And yet that still didn't prompt Strache and Gudenus to leave. The confidant said the Russian woman's dealings were in "an illegal space." Strache and Gudenus remained seated.

The FPÖ boss and the deputy mayor of Vienna remained at the meeting for more than six hours, a rendezvous that most politicians would likely never even have considered. The full length of the meeting is documented in the video, sober viewing that raises deep moral questions, both political and otherwise. More than six hours that covered not only backroom deals, but also the overarching goal of creating a tamed Austrian media landscape similar to the Hungarian model. It also covered such gossip as which high-ranking politician is homosexual and which one does cocaine and where he gets it. The video provides a glimpse into the small world of Viennese politics.

Strache and Gudenus didn't leave until well past midnight, when they moved on to a large nightclub called "Hï Ibiza," located a few kilometers away in the resort town of Playa d'en Bossa.

Did Strache or Gudenus report to the authorities the next day that someone had attempted to bribe them? Or that illicit money was to be smuggled into Austria?

Requests for responses to those questions sent by the Süddeutsche Zeitung and the newsweekly Der Spiegel were left unanswered. In a message to Süddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel, Strache and Gudenus did not deny having been in that villa, but stress that it was a "strictly private meeting".

Ibiza, an oligarch's niece, millions and millions of euros and a major newspaper? Even by the standards of Austrian politics – which has a penchant for absurdist drama – it is a rather audacious scenario. Too audacious to be real, in fact. Strache and Gudenus, it turns out, had been lured into a trap. Apparently, someone wanted to test how they would react to such a tempting offer.

The purported Russian wasn't the niece of oligarch Makarov, who actually is a real person. Nor is it likely that she had hundreds of millions of euros at her disposal. She was simply acting as a decoy.

The meeting in Ibiza appears to have served the sole purpose of deceiving Strache and Gudenus in a professionally staged and technically elaborate spectacle.

Hidden cameras and microphones were installed in the villa in light switches and in a mobile phone charging station. The microphones recorded almost every word spoken.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel both obtained parts of the video and audio recordings and analyzed them together. The Süddeutsche Zeitung paid no money for the material, and neither did Der Spiegel, according to the magazine.

Neither Der Spiegel nor the Süddeutsche Zeitung have any reliable information about the motives of the people who set Strache this trap in 2017 or who they may have been working for.

But one thing is clear following the evaluation of the material and verification of its authenticity by two experts: It is in the public interest to know how Strache and Gudenus, high-ranking representatives of the Austrian government and of their party, responded to dubious advances from a purported oligarch. Strache, 49, is currently Austria's vice chancellor and head of the FPÖ. Gudenus, 42, is one of two FPÖ parliamentary group leaders in the National Council, Austria's parliament. Both are extremely important figures in Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's coalition government – an alliance that pairs the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) with the right-wing populist FPÖ and has been deeply shaken recently by the reluctance of FPÖ politicians to distance themselves from the radical, far-right fringe of their party. Kurz has been under scrutiny both at home and abroad since forming a government with the right-wing populists. The video from Ibiza is likely to create additional pressure for Kurz's government.

Strache and his political protégé Gudenus regularly spend their holidays on Ibiza, Mallorca's sister island which has been attracting the rich and the beautiful for decades. Locals and hippies once had the gorgeous bays to themselves, but today it's the luxury yachts of American film stars and Russian industrial magnates that anchor there. The villa in which Strache and Gudenus negotiated election help with the purported oligarch is situated a few kilometers outside Ibiza Town on a range of hills and epitomizes every cliché about the island.

The luxurious property, with its whitewashed walls, is full of designer furniture inside and includes a pool and guesthouse outside. It's bookable through an online rental agency at a cost of around 3,000 euros for three nights. The Süddeutsche Zeitung has obtained photos of an invoice showing the villa was booked from July 22-25, 2017. An expert hired by the Süddeutsche Zeitung confirmed that the photos advertising the villa on the booking website show the same rooms that can be seen in the hours of video footage.

Strache, Gudenus and his wife had already been in Ibiza for a few days when they drove to the villa on the evening of Monday, July 24. Reporting by the Süddeutsche Zeitung found that they arrived at around 8 p.m. Dinner had been delivered one hour earlier – at a cost of 374 euros, according to the invoice. High-end luxury cars were also parked on the property, including a Mercedes Maibach and a BMW M4 sports car among others. Bodyguards were also likely present. The trap had been set.

"As long as I'm not dead," Strache said, "I'll be in charge for the next 20 years." 

The hosts and guests introduced themselves to each other and they started off by having an aperitif on the terrace. Hidden cameras and microphones began recording their conversations there. Some small talk, champagne, toasts – a little something to break the ice. Strache told them who he had just met (an important diamond dealer), who had been engaging in "dirty campaigning" (a controversial political adviser to the Social Democratic Party, the SPÖ) and who was calling the shots within the FPÖ (Strache, of course). And who his replacement would be if something were to happen to him (Austrian Transport Minister Norbert Hofer and Gudenus). Of course, that wasn't the plan. "As long as I'm not dead," Strache said, "I'll be in charge for the next 20 years."

Strache and the FPÖ are one-and-the-same – which is precisely why the purported niece of the oligarch wanted to speak directly with the politician. There had already been meetings with Gudenus, a confidant with whom Strache has been friends ever since they were in Austria's Vandalia fraternity together, where Strache had been his pledge father. The trap had apparently been set via Gudenus, who studied in Moscow, speaks Russian and, on that night at the villa, served primarily as the translator. Gudenus' family owns properties in Lower Austria, and Gudenus had been told that a rich Russian woman was interested in acquiring land in the country.

According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung's reporting, the first meetings with the Russian woman had already taken place months before in hotels in Vienna, and they had gotten along swimmingly. Gudenus' enthusiasm may also have stemmed from the fact that the Russian woman had promised him fantastical prices. In a clip from the video recorded on Ibiza, Gudenus whispers to Strache that she wanted to buy a piece of land from him "at five times the price."

In the ensuing months, though, a completely different plan emerged – that of acquiring the Kronen Zeitung newspaper. In the video, Gudenus claimed the idea had originated with him. The tabloid reaches around 2 million readers each day, a phenomenal number given Austria's total population of only 8.7 million. Having the Kronen Zeitung on your side has always been an important key to political power in Austria. You could even say the Kronen Zeitung has crowned chancellors and deposed them. If the Russian woman were actually to buy a stake in the newspaper and influence its coverage to favor the FPÖ, it would do more than just provide a tremendous boost for the party – it would be like adding rocket fuel to the election campaign.

At the time of the meeting on Ibiza, the Austrian general election was less than three months away – the election that would finally see Heinz-Christian Strache, nicknamed HC, become a member of a government cabinet. He has led the FPÖ since 2005, transforming the right-wing populist group into something of a big-tent party in the country. In summer 2017, the FPÖ hovered between second and third place in the polls, consistently behind the conservative ÖVP, but occasionally ahead of the Social Democrats. But all three were bunched closely together. Just a few percentage points would separate them and with a little luck, the FPÖ might even have become the country's strongest party. That summer, it even seemed as though Strache himself had a shot at becoming chancellor.

In other words, the Russian woman's apparent intention to acquire the Kronen Zeitung could be the FPÖ's path to power in the country.

Whether blinded by that hope or by the prospect of a lucrative property deal, Gudenus apparently didn't properly vet Alyona Makarova before setting up a business meeting with party head Strache. In its reporting, the Süddeutsche Zeitung found that Gudenus didn't even see her ID card or that of her confidant – not even once.

Strache, for his part, at least asked at the very beginning of the Ibiza meeting who knew who and how, and where they were from. He asked the woman if she was from Moscow and she affirmed that she was. "We like Russia," Strache said with a laugh, before dropping the rather superficial inquiry. He preferred entertaining the group with stories and anecdotes that tended to focus on how successful, smart or well-liked HC Strache is. Gudenus was only too pleased to give him a hand, saying that the FPÖ hadn't made a single wrong decision since 2005.

The keyword "Kronen Zeitung" didn't come up until almost two hours into the conversation – and the mood quickly turned serious. They had arrived at the "main topic," as Gudenus described it. They decided to take their conversation inside the villa, apparently to ensure that no one could eavesdrop, and they moved everything to the living room table: the drinks, the cigarettes and the ashtrays. Then Strache wanted to know: "What progress has already been made?" "What has solidified?"

Gudenus said negotiations had already begun and that the plan seemed to be real. He said Alyona Makarova was in talks with the family that owns the newspaper and had progress to report. The Russian woman's confidant added that they were in direct contact with two of the four heirs of deceased Kronen Zeitung founder Hans Dichand, who had each inherited 12.5 percent of the 50-percent stake in the company he had owned. The truth, though, is that apparently none of this was true. The negotiations with the Dichand family were a fabrication, a fact that Kronen Zeitung publisher Christoph Dichand confirmed to the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Strache, though, didn't know that and he took the bait anyway, raving about the "most powerful newspaper in Europe relative to population," with "a gigantic amount of power" and a "world-class history." In the living room of the villa, he went through scenarios of what a takeover of the paper might look like: A few journalists would be "shown the door," a few new ones would be brought in. Journalists, he said, are "the biggest whores on the planet," so that won't be any problem.

When Gudenus then translated the Russian woman's claim that the purchase of the Kronen Zeitung could be completed within weeks, with plenty of time left before the election, Strache's euphoria reached a fever pitch. If she did actually acquire the newspaper and there were two-to-three weeks to push the FPÖ before the vote, he shouted, "then we won't get 27, we will get 34 percent!" 

In Strache's strategic thinking, control of the Kronen Zeitung represented more than just a path to power. It would be a first step toward an even bigger goal – the Orbánization of the Austrian media landscape. The Hungarian leader is one of the strongmen Strache likes to emulate in his leadership style. "If we had the absolute majority, we could do things the way Orbán does," he shouted to his supporters at an FPÖ event in Vösendorf in January 2018.

The tone was similar in the villa on Ibiza. "We want to build a media landscape similar to Orbán's," Strache said. A glance across the border is all you need to realize what he means, where the Hungarian public broadcasting system has already been the government's mouthpiece for several years. Even the privately held media there is largely under the control of people connected with Orbán. In such a situation, one doesn't have to worry much about unwanted criticism, and it's also easier to win elections. Freedom of the press? That's something that Strache also finds to be something of a nuisance. And he promised to deliver a "media concept" for the new Kronen Zeitung to the supposed Russian investor within two or three weeks.

Strache explained to the Russian woman over and over again how she could make money with the Kronen Zeitung – simply because, as the publisher, people would be coming to her and new business opportunities would open up as a result.

The Kronen Zeitung, he told her, is "the dominant force on the newspaper market," and if she were able to gain control of a TV broadcaster as well, "you would exert control over everything." A short time later, he brought up the Austrian public broadcaster ORF which, he said, would be "the only competitor" after the purchase of the Kronen Zeitung newspaper. And he then promised: "If we become part of the government, we could imagine privatizing a broadcaster." And: "We could imagine completely restructuring ORF."

Skip ahead almost two years, and the FPÖ and ÖVP are, in fact, currently working on a new law regulating ORF, though it remains unclear what that law might ultimately look like.

Back on Ibiza, Strache was apparently aware that the purported oligarch-niece would expect compensation for providing the FPÖ with campaign assistance. While he was careful at many points in the discussion to emphasize that everything had to be "in conformance with the law, legal" and "consistent with our platform," he then said something that isn't likely to be forgotten any time soon: "If that's her asset, and she makes that contribution three weeks before the election, then you'd have to be an idiot – there's no need to talk further." There's a moment when several voices can be heard talking over each other before Strache says: "Excuse me, excuse me!" He then elucidated what he could do for her if she were to provide such assistance: "Then tell her she should found a company like STRABAG" – the multinational Austrian construction company. "All public tenders that STRABAG now receives would then be hers."

At that moment, Strache threw caution to the wind and did exactly what the decoy had apparently been hoping for: He blatantly stepped over the bounds of what is permissible. Pledging to grant public contracts to the presumed investor in exchange for her media support in the campaign is neither "in conformance with the law" nor is it "legal." And it probably also isn't consistent with the election platform on which the FPÖ election campaign was based.

It sounds an awful lot like corruption. I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine.

Whether Strache could face legal troubles as a result is a separate question. Experts are skeptical since he made these promises before he was in office.

When contacted for comment, Strache stated via WhatsApp that neither he nor the FPÖ "received or were promised any kind of benefits from these people." In addition, Strache and Gudenus wrote, "a lot of alcohol was consumed as the evening progressed" and there was "a high language barrier" with "no professional interpreter."

It is likely no accident that Strache brought up STRABAG. Businessman Hans Peter Haselsteiner, a powerful political adversary of Strache's, owns a stake in the company. Haselsteiner also once held a seat in Austrian parliament for the Liberal Forum party, and ahead of the Austrian presidential election in 2016, he invested significant amounts of money in a campaign against the FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer, who ultimately lost by a razor-thin margin to the Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen. The two don't like each other much – and Strache doesn't appear to be too concerned about hiding that fact.

Just a few minutes earlier in the Ibiza meeting, Strache had said: "The first thing" he could promise should his party become part of government was: "Haselsteiner doesn't get any more contracts."

 And because Haselsteiner's company STRABAG is awarded many public tenders, Strache added: "It's a huge volume." He went on to say: "If the quality is there and a quality bidder is there, then I'll be the first to say ..." At which point Strache thrust his arms in the air in a theatrical shrug.

And then Strache addressed for a third time the idea of freezing out STRABAG on behalf of the Russian. Turning the discussion to highway construction, he said he was "immediately in favor" of giving "every public tender" to "anyone but Haselsteiner."

Strache also repeatedly brought up the connection to campaign assistance. In one instance, he turned to his companion Gudenus so that he could translate something for the purported Russian: "Tell her that if she takes over the Kronen Zeitung three weeks before the election and boosts us to first place, then everything is up for discussion." In another: "There's not much to say here. If she takes over the Krone Zeitung and is able to give us a punch three weeks before the election, then we can talk about everything. We would always find a way to figure it out." Strache is not particularly well-versed in English and it seems likely that instead of "punch," he actually meant "push," the word he used in a different quote.

But Strache's purported Russian partners still weren't satisfied, even with the STRABAG-related pledge that they would receive public contracts. They responded that they didn't just want public tenders -- they also wanted "public contracts with a surcharge" – overpriced to their advantage. Strache answered with an extended "Jaaaa." The confidant of the purported oligarch-niece then went even further and said that the point was "that the surcharge would be guaranteed."

Strache answered immediately: "Again, you'll get that with the public contracts."

That pledge came from the same man who had just stated that he wouldn't do anything illegal. That legality was sacred to him and that was his greatest strength. The same man who, in a different part of the video, said he was against inflated prices, that the FPÖ always wanted the best for the country, that this desire was part of the party's idealism. 

„I’m the Red Bull brother from Austria.“  

The video essentially shows a dance, one in which the two decoys continually tried to push Strache right to the edge of what is permissible – and beyond. In doing so, they repeatedly made extremely clear what they were after: corrupt business deals. The woman explains, that in her practice it is like this: "You put something into it, you give it to someone, you buy a vote. Then this vote makes something to your advantage." She adds, "And that's what we're talking about." Strache and Gudenus get spelled out what they're getting into here.

Over and over again, they listed the countries in Eastern Europe that they claimed had agreed to such deals. Most of the time, Strache remained steadfast: In Austria, he said more than once, things are done differently – passages that were so innocuous that they could have been written by a press spokesman. It was clear that he would have preferred it had the Russian woman been satisfied with vague, non-specific pledges. At the same time, though, he was apparently wary of driving her away. And as the cloud of cigarette smoke thickened, the dance continued, with Strache imbibing vodka & Red Bull all the while. "I'm the Red Bull brother from Austria," he said in English at one point.

The confidant of the supposed Russian woman ultimately asked in an exasperated tone: "Just so I understand correctly: Should I tell her that she can expect nothing in return et cetera?" Strache immediately countered: "No, that's wrong, that's wrong." Gudenus was also quick to dissent. Then Strache explained how it should work, gesticulating with an unlit cigarette between his fingers: "She needs to tell us that she is interested in this line of business and that line of business and the other line of business. Like that. And then we'll take a look at what is most beneficial" and "what fits."

Throughout the evening, the FPÖ men and the supposed Russian woman spoke about a number of different ideas, all of which essentially focused on one thing: How could the woman allegedly named Alyona Makarova funnel her money into Austria? Some of the offers made were harmless, such as when Strache suggested she buy up hotels – "awesome, awesome run-down hotels" near good ski resorts "because you can turn them into something."

Things got a bit more tenuous when Strache offered to use the contacts he – and here, the word "allegedly" is perhaps appropriate as well – has almost everywhere in the world. He quickly added that he probably didn't need to make his Russian contacts available since his counterpart likely already had "good contacts in Russia, probably to Putin." But, he said, there were his "Israeli friends" who he claimed were close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and who "have a problem with the leftists there." Or the Chinese – "Those dogs have a lot of money," as Strache unflatteringly put it. He said he had been invited to go to China soon, adding that in the country, they like to see political and economic issues in the same hands. He explained that he understood that to mean that the Chinese wanted to know from him who they should be doing business with in Austria. And he could, of course, make suggestions. "That's how the story goes," Strache said, meaning that's how things work.

Strache even offered the Russian woman a business area the FPÖ had always vilified: the water supply system. Officially, the FPÖ boss had always been clear on the issue: Water should be "neither a source of profit for companies nor capital for speculators." But in the villa on Ibiza, he was suddenly calling it "white gold" and spoke of wanting to establish a structure "where we can sell the water, where the state earns revenues and the one that runs it also earns revenues." They would merely have to "iron out the percentages."

Back in April 2013, Johann Gudenus had unleashed a storm of indignation against the SPÖ in Vienna, accusing them of a "red privatization obsession," red being the color generally associated with the center-left party. One of the examples he used was a water source that had been leased by the city of Vienna to a private company in 1998 for commercial use. After the water offer, Strache and Gudenus offered that the Russian woman could get involved in the gambling market, saying they wanted to break up the monopoly in that area, anyway.

At some point, of course, the question came up as to what, exactly, Strache and Gudenus wanted. After all, they had shown themselves to be more than willing to help the Russian woman find a home for her money in Austria. One of their desires was clear: They wanted support for their campaign from the Krone Zeitung. And then Strache and Gudenus threw out another idea: "If she wants," Strache said twice, "if she likes the idea," she could make a donation to the party. If not, then not.

The political donation issue is problematic on two fronts. On the one hand, political parties in Austria are not allowed to accept donations from foreigners in excess of 2,641 euros – and one can assume that Strache might have been expecting a bit more than that from a Russian multimillionaire. On the other hand, Strache and Gudenus didn't intend for her to donate money directly to the FPÖ – as they said repeatedly – but "through the association."

Strache was quite clear about why the Russian woman should donate to the association instead of directly to the party. When you donate to the party, he said, "it gets reported to the Court of Audits" and "nobody wants that." A donation to the association could avoid such unpleasantness. "The association is non-profit, it has nothing to do with the party," the FPÖ head explained. "That means it doesn't have to be reported to the Court of Audits. It is a not-for-profit association, with three lawyers. It has a charter: making Austria more economically competitive." But he never actually named the association. In Russian, Gudenus reaffirms how secret all this is: nobody would know anything about this association.

Earlier that evening, Gudenus had already claimed that other parties take advantage of the donation loophole as well. Perhaps that's why Strache and he were so open – because they believed that everyone does it anyway.

The FPÖ has been fulminating for years against large donors, making a donation from the Russian woman via the association doubly attractive: It wouldn't be made public. And here, the meeting in Ibiza revealed yet more murk: If what Strache described is true, then his party has long since established such a system. "There are a couple of very wealthy people and they pay between 500,000 and 1.5 to 2 million." And a bit later: "I can name a couple of people," he said, who "pay, not to the party but through a non-profit association." And to be more precise, he added "circumventing the Court of Audits."

And then he named a couple of names: the weapons manufacturer Gaston Glock, the German department store heiress and billionaire Heidi Goëss-Horten and the investor René Benko, who, Strache said, donates to both the FPÖ and the ÖVP. According to Strache, another of the donors was the gambling machine company Novomatic.

Heidi Goëss-Horten, René Benko, Gaston Glock and Novomatic all deny such involvement. Heinz-Christian Strache and Johann Gudenus, meanwhile, told the Süddeutsche that the donations were never actually received and that they had been clear about the legal restrictions applying "to all potential donations." Strache did not deny the existence of the association.

The way in which Strache spoke openly to the alleged niece of a Russian oligarch – a woman whom he had never met before – about allegedly covert party donations was one of the strangest parts of the video. The scene was also memorable when Gudenus, as he was translating the list of the alleged donors for the Russians, stood in the middle of the room and shaped his hands in the form of a pistol when speaking of Glock.

The later floor leader of a governing party in Austria. Bang, bang.

For most of the video, it didn't appear that the FPÖ politicians were at all suspicious that the entire meeting could actually be a ruse. There were, though, a couple of moments when Strache suddenly looked around, apparently examining the walls as though looking for a hidden camera. And then there's the moment when all three suddenly became nervous: Gudenus, his wife and Strache, late in the evening.

The two decoys had stepped out of the room for a moment and the three began whispering. The word "trap" was mentioned and "contrived." Strache said that the allegedly mega-rich Russian had dirty toenails. Gudenus then responded assuredly: "It's not a trap." Strache, though, suddenly seemed subdued.

Perhaps he had just realized the situation he had got himself into. Even if one was willing to discount the STRABAG offer as whimsical, the allegedly covert party donations as common procedure and his Orbán-esque power-fantasies as being standard Strache fare – if it were to be revealed just how derogatorily and scornfully Strache and Gudenus spoke about politicians from other parties, coalition talks would have become impossible, as would close cooperation as part of a joint government.

"It is possible, but he won't say so, do you understand?" 

The following episode provides a telling example: In a whisper, Strache told Gudenus about his idea for doing away with two political adversaries at once. Each of the two adversaries knew of the existence of sexually compromising material implicating the other – or even had it in their possession. But both were afraid of publicizing it out of fear of retaliation. Strache's idea was: "If we were successful in getting photos from one of them, which we could then publish abroad, the other side would think it was the other one, and the nuclear war would begin."

Even though Strache had briefly grown suspicious that the whole thing might be a trap after all, he didn't immediately leave the villa. Instead, he held a rather dark monologue about the inevitable collapse of the global economy: "The crash is coming, as certain as the amen after a prayer." And he spoke of how he had earned huge amounts of money with gold. And then, at some point, Strache, Gudenus and his wife decided it was time to head out to the club.

And yet he was still preoccupied with the opportunity presented by the possible Kronen Zeitung deal. Strache turned once again to the Russian woman's confidant and said she really should do the "right and smart" thing and buy the newspaper. The confidant responded by warning that she needed a clear pledge and she needed it now. "I don't know how important this whole thing is for you," he said, but if it was important, he intimated, now was the time to act.

Strache turned to Gudenus. "Take care of it Joschi," he said, using the nickname by which Gudenus is known within the FPÖ. He then repeated the request: "Take care of it. Take care of it." So Joahann Gudenus headed into the kitchen. "Alyona," he called to the Russian woman, and then he said something in Russian which has been translated and certified by an accredited interpreter. "It is possible, but he won't say so, do you understand?"

"He" was a reference to Strache. The head of the FPÖ. The man who professes to be so concerned about the law. "He" won't say so. Joschi, though, who had been told to take care of it, Joschi said so. Strache's comrade-in-arms, Strache's protégé, Strache's confidant. And Joschi turned to the woman who supposedly wanted to illegally stash millions in Austria and said: "We are 100 percent prepared to help, no matter what."

And now, they could head out to the club. "High, high, high society," Heinz-Christian Strache sang once they were outside, adding in English: "We make party now." Their FPÖ friends were waiting.

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