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Muddy waters in #Firtash case give Vienna pause



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.



Investment Plan for Europe in Austria: Fresh lending to help households and businesses build energy-efficient homes 



The EIB Group has provided a financial guarantee to Hypo Vorarlberg Bank in Austria to expand its lending capacity for households, SMEs and mid-cap customers. This agreement is backed by the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), the main pillar of the Investment Plan for Europe. Thanks to this new agreement, Hypo Vorarlberg will be able to support the construction of highly energy-efficient residential buildings, thus helping the environment and the Austrian economy in the challenging COVID-19 context.

Economy Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni said: “Thanks to this support from the Investment Plan for Europe, Hypo Vorarlberg will be able to increase its lending capacity to households, SMEs and mid-caps for the construction of new energy-efficient homes. This initiative will help the hard-hit construction sector in this difficult time, as well as contributing to the achievement of our climate goals.”

The press release is available here. The Investment Plan for Europe has so far mobilized €535 billion of investment across the EU, benefitting over 1.4 million SMEs in total.

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Commission approves Austrian measures to support rail freight and passenger operators affected by the coronavirus outbreak



The European Commission has approved, under EU state aid rules, two Austrian measures supporting the rail freight sector and one measure supporting the rail passenger sector in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The two measures supporting the rail freight sector will ensure increased public support to further encourage the shift of freight traffic from road to rail, and the third measure introduces temporary relief for rail operators providing passenger services on a commercial basis.

The Commission found that the measures are beneficial for the environment and for mobility as they support rail transport, which is less polluting than road transport, while also decreasing road congestion. The Commission also found that the measures are proportionate and necessary to achieve the objective pursued, namely to support the modal shift from road to rail whilst not leading to undue competition distortions. Finally, the waiver of infrastructure access charges provided for in the second and third measures described above is in line with the recently adopted Regulation (EU) 2020/1429.

This Regulation allows and encourages member states to temporarily authorize the reduction, waiver or deferral of charges for accessing rail infrastructure below direct costs. As a result, the Commission concluded that the measures comply with EU state aid rules, in particular the 2008 Commission Guidelines on state aid for railway undertakings (the Railway Guidelines).

Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “The measures approved today will enable the Austrian authorities to support not only rail freight transport operators, but also commercial passenger operators in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. This will contribute to maintaining their competitiveness compared to other modes of transport, in line with the EU Green Deal objective. We continue working with all member states to ensure that national support measures can be put in place as quickly and effectively as possible, in line with EU rules.”

The full press release is available online

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Europe needs more robust plan to deal with foreign fighters, Austria says




The European Union needs a more robust and coordinated plan for dealing with foreign fighters and those who want to join their ranks like the jihadist who killed four people in Vienna last week, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Monday (9 November), writes Francois Murphy.

Protecting the bloc’s borders should also be part of Europe’s response to Islamist militancy, which Kurz will discuss with the leaders of France, Germany and the European Union today (10 November), he told a news conference.

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