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Muddy waters in #Firtash case give Vienna pause




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In the latest twist in an already bizarre saga, one which has roped in Russiagate theorists and pitted a former Austrian minister against US prosecutors, Austria’s caretaker government approved the extradition of Ukrainian oligarch Dimitri Firtash to the United States— just as a Vienna judge ruled to halt Firtash’s extradition.

Firtash—who stands accused by a Chicago court of having been involved in a criminal conspiracy to pay bribes in India in order to mine titanium—has already been stuck in Austria, fighting extradition, since he was first arrested on a US warrant in March 2014.


He now seems likely to remain in Austria for a while yet: the latest delay to his extradition comes after Firtash’s defence team, led by former Austrian justice minister Dieter Boehmdorfer, submitted “extremely extensive material” which Boehmdorfer believes will prove that the US has “a far-reaching political motivation” in seeking Firtash.

Longstanding rumours about Washington’s motivations

Indeed, suspicions that the US has ulterior motives in indicting Firtash have clouded the five-year-long case from the start. To start with, Firtash’s profile alone would make him naturally of interest to American law enforcement agencies and politicians. A supporter of Ukraine’s ousted, pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych, Firtash has extensive connections among Ukrainian and Russian elites


As early as 2015, the original Austrian judge in charge of the case suspected that it was these connections and Firtash’s place on the inside track of Ukrainian politics, rather than any involvement with a bribery scandal, which had piqued Washington’s interest. In an extremely rare step between Western allies—one which was later overturned by higher courts— Judge Christoph Bauer, of the Landesgerichtsstrasse Regional Court in Vienna, ruled against Firtash’s extradition to the United States.

Bauer’s justification for his decision constituted a remarkably scathing rebuke of the US Justice and State Departments. The judge explained that he did not merely doubt the veracity of two witnesses cited by American prosecutors in their filings that he doubted, but “whether these witnesses even existed.”

Arrest when convenient

What’s more, Bauer questioned why US prosecutors had sat on the Firtash indictment for close to a year. The Austrian judge suspected that the delay had something to do with the Ukrainian’s close relationship with then president Yanukovych. Pointing to documents showing that Washington initially asked Vienna to arrest Firtash in the fall of 2013, Bauer noted that, in parallel, Yanukovych was waffling on signing the association agreement with the European Union.

According to Bauer, indications that Yanukovych was being swayed back around to the West led to the arrest being put on hold. Viennese authorities received an urgent, cryptic message days before the arrest was scheduled to take place, reading “As part of a larger strategy, US authorities have determined we need to pass up this opportunity”.

A valuable source?

Yanukovych, of course, did not sign the agreement in the end, and was eventually forced into exile after months of protests. Four days after Yanukovych was deposed, the US authorities resurrected their request for Firtash to be arrested: the Ukrainian was finally taken into custody just as open conflict was breaking out in Ukraine between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions.

There’s always been speculation, however, that Firtash was more than just a bargaining chip in a tussle with Moscow over Yanukovych’s loyalties. As early as 2014, one American insider suggested to the BBC that US prosecutors wanted Firtash for the sensitive information he held regarding Russian and Ukrainian elites. "He knows a whole lot of things about the elites in Russia and Ukraine," the anonymous source explained, "it would be great to have this man talking."

These rumours now appear to have borne fruit, as reports have surfaced that special counsel Robert Mueller’s chief deputy Andrew Weissmann reached out to Firtash’s lawyers in June 2017 with a new deal: shed some light on Russiagate, and the criminal charges Firtash faced in the US might go away. Firtash turned the deal down—according to his lawyers, because he didn’t have information on the subjects Weissman was interested in.

Clouds gather over Exhibit A

The revelation that US prosecutors proffered such a deal seems to confirm the longstanding theory that Washington had political reasons for wanting Firtash on American soil. As Bauer noted when initially nixing the extradition, Austria would have grounds to reject a politically-motivated extradition request “even if a crime occurred”.

Over the past few weeks, troubling questions have also arisen over the file US prosecutors put together to argue that Firtash did in fact commit a crime. Back in 2014, just as the case against Firtash was faltering in Bauer’s court, the Austrian Ministry of Justice received a fresh piece of evidence, dubbed Exhibit A. Exhibit A consisted of a single PowerPoint slide from 2006, which mentioned the “use of bribes” in conjunction with a “2-part India Strategy”.

Prosecutors held the PowerPoint slide out as the smoking gun that Firtash himself had advocated for the use of bribes. More recently, however, it’s become clear that the slide was written not by Firtash, nor by any of his companies, but by American consulting firm McKinsey.

Case in limbo

Firtash’s American legal team have, predictably, been quick to point to the Exhibit A debacle as evidence of less-than-clean intentions on Washington’s part. "Submitting a false and misleading document to a foreign sovereign and its courts for an extradition decision is not only unethical,” the team wrote to investigative journalist John Solomon, “but also flouts the comity of trust necessary for that process where judicial systems rely only on documents to make that decision."

With a key piece of evidence collapsing and two witnesses who’ve recently recanted their testimony, the waters surrounding the Firtash case are muddier than ever. Given the fresh furore, it’s not surprising that Vienna wants more time to make sure Austria’s legal system is not blindly doing Washington’s bidding.



Commission approves €1.6 million Austrian scheme to support public companies active in the pool and wellness sector in the context of the coronavirus outbreak



The European Commission has approved a €1.6 million Austrian scheme to support public companies active in the pool and wellness sector affected by the coronavirus outbreak and the restrictive measures that the Austrian government had to implement to limit the spread of the virus. The measure was approved under the State aid Temporary Framework. Under the scheme, the aid will take the form of direct grants up to €400,000 per beneficiary.

The measure will be open to publicly owned micro, small and medium-sized enterprises active in the Salzburg region and operating a thermal or indoor swimming pool with sauna and/or wellness area. The public support will cover part of the fixed costs incurred by these companies during periods in which they experienced business disruption due to the restrictions in place. The purpose of the measure is to mitigate the sudden liquidity shortages that these companies are facing due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Commission found that the Austrian scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, the aid (i) will not exceed €1.8m per beneficiary; and (ii) will be granted no later than 31 December 2021. The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions of the Temporary Framework. On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.64490 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.


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NextGenerationEU: European Commission endorses Austria's recovery and resilience plan



The European Commission has adopted a positive assessment of Austria's recovery and resilience plan. This is an important step towards the EU disbursing €3.5 billion in grants under the Recovery and Resilience Facility. This financing will support the implementation of the crucial investment and reform measures outlined in Austria's recovery and resilience plan. It will help Austria emerge stronger from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The RRF – at the heart of NextGenerationEU – will provide up to €672.5 billion (in current prices) to support investments and reforms across the EU. The Austrian plan forms part of an unprecedented coordinated EU response to the COVID-19 crisis, to address common European challenges by embracing the green and digital transitions, to strengthen economic and social resilience and the cohesion of the Single Market.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said: “Today, the European Commission has decided to give its green light to Austria's recovery and resilience plan. Austria is already a forerunner in the green transition. By placing a special emphasis on investments and reforms that further support our climate objectives, Austria is making a clear statement. We have endorsed your plan because we fully agree that bold action is needed to deliver the green transition.”


The Commission assessed Austria's plan based on the criteria set out in the RRF Regulation. The Commission's analysis considered, in particular, whether the investments and reforms set out in Austria's plan support the green and digital transitions; contribute to effectively addressing challenges identified in the European Semester; and strengthen its growth potential, job creation and economic and social resilience.

Securing Austria's green and digital transition  

The Commission's assessment finds that Austria's plan devotes 59% of the plan's total allocation to measures that support climate objectives. This includes reforms to Austria's tax system that target reducing CO2 emissions through incentives for climate friendly technologies, preferential tax rates for low- or zero- emission products, and pricing of CO2 emissions. These measures are flanked by targeted tax relief for companies and households in need. Other measures invest in energy efficiency, renewables, the decarbonisation of industry, biodiversity and circular economy. These investments are accompanied by related reforms, including the overhaul of the support framework for renewables and the phase-out of oil heating systems.


The Commission's assessment of Austria's plan finds that it devotes 53% of its total allocation to measures that support the digital transition. This includes considerable investments into connectivity, with a particular focus on the widespread deployment of Gigabit-capable networks and the establishment of new symmetrical Gigabit connections in underserved, disadvantaged and rural areas. The plan also includes significant investments in the digitalisation of education, e-government and SMEs.

Reinforcing Austria's economic and social resilience

The Commission considers that Austria's plan includes an extensive set of mutually reinforcing reforms and investments that contribute to effectively addressing a significant subset of the economic and social challenges outlined in the country-specific recommendations addressed to Austria. The full-time labour market participation of women is expected to improve due to an increased availability of quality early childcare facilities. The long-recognised challenge related to the gender pension gap is tackled through measures in the plan. The plan addresses some of the social and economic challenges that have emerged or were exacerbated during the COVID-19 crisis. Targeted compensation of educational and learning deficits due to the pandemic will combat an increase in inequalities in education outcomes. A series of active labour market policy measures are expected to address the increased need for help to the low-skilled and raise the labour market opportunities of disadvantaged groups.

The plan represents a comprehensive and adequately balanced response to Austria's economic and social situation of Austria, thereby contributing appropriately to all six pillars referred to in the RRF Regulation.

An Economy that Works for People Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis (pictured) said: “We have today endorsed Austria's recovery plan to create a more equitable, digital and sustainable economy. This plan strikes the right balance, with over half of total allocation geared towards climate objectives, such as investments to retire outdated oil and gas heating systems, support emission-free public transport and safeguard biodiversity. The plan will also drive forward digital connectivity in Austria and help foster pupils' digital skills. I especially welcome measures to lend a hand to low-skilled and disadvantaged groups thanks to targeted labour market opportunities, and to make it easier for women to work full-time.”

Supporting flagship investment and reform projects

The Austrian plan proposes projects in seven European flagship areas. These are specific investment projects which address issues that are common to all Member States in areas that create jobs and growth and are needed for the twin transition. For instance, Austria has proposed to invest €159 million to retire outdated oil and gas heating systems and €543 million on the construction of new train lines and the electrification of existing ones. 

Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “Austria's recovery and resilience plan contains a truly wide-ranging set of initiatives that will improve the lives of citizens and the competitiveness of businesses in all parts of the country. Measures include the important eco-social tax reform - an excellent example of how taxation policies can help to protect our climate in a way that is socially fair. Together with measures like the phase-out of oil heating systems and the mobility masterplan, Austria will receive a strong boost in its efforts to be climate-neutral by 2040. I also welcome reforms will support health and long-term care, childcare facilities and education.”

The assessment also finds that none of the measures included in the plan significantly harm the environment, in line with the requirements laid out in the RRF Regulation.

The control systems put in place by Austria are considered adequate to protect the financial interests of the Union. The plan provides sufficient details on how national authorities will prevent, detect and correct instances of conflict of interest, corruption and fraud relating to the use of funds.

Next steps

The Commission has today adopted a proposal for a Council Implementing Decision to provide €3.5 billion in grants to Austria under the RRF. The Council will now have, as a rule, four weeks to adopt the Commission's proposal.

The Council's approval of the plan would allow for the disbursement of €450 million to Austria in pre-financing. This represents 13% of the total allocated amount for Austria.

The Commission will authorise further disbursements based on the satisfactory fulfilment of the milestones and targets outlined in the Council Implementing Decision, reflecting progress in the implementation of the investments and reforms. 

For More Information

Questions and Answers: European Commission endorses Austria's recovery and resilience plan

Recovery and Resilience Facility: Questions and Answers

Factsheet on Austria's recovery and resilience plan

Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Austria

Annex to the Proposal for a Council Implementing Decision on the approval of the assessment of the recovery and resilience plan for Austria

Staff-working document accompanying the proposal for a Council Implementing Decision

Recovery and Resilience Facility

Recovery and Resilience Facility Regulation

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NextGenerationEU: President von der Leyen in Austria and Slovakia to present Commission assessment of national recovery plans



Today (21 June), Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) will continue her NextGenerationEU tour in Austria and Slovakia, to personally hand over the result of the Commission's assessment and Recommendation to the Council on the approval of the national recovery and resilience plans in the context of NextGenerationEU. On Monday morning, she will be in Vienna for a meeting with the Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz. Later that day, the President will travel to Bratislava, where she will be received by Eduard Heger, Prime Minister of the Slovak Republic. She will also meet Zuzana Čaputová, President of the Slovak Republic, and Boris Kollár, Speaker of the National Council, together with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. In both countries, the President will visit projects that are or will be funded under the Recovery and Resilience Facility, focused on science and the green transition in Slovakia, and on quantum technology in Austria.


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