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Naturalisation decisions under scrutiny

A rightist politician’s conviction for unjust enrichment has turned the focus on Austria’s naturalisation policies.

Carinthian Freedom Party (FPK) boss Uwe Scheuch was sentenced to six months in prison with another 12 months on suspension by a court in Klagenfurt earlier this year. Scheuch – who denies having done anything wrong – appealed the verdict. This means that an appeal court in Graz must rule whether it becomes legally effective. A final judgement is expected in around half a year.

Scheuch promised in a telephone conversation that a Russian investor would receive an Austrian passport if he donated a certain amount to his party – which was the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) at the time the chat took place in 2009. The FPK chief claimed a naturalisation was "part of the game" if businesspeople decided to subsidise his faction. The conversation was secretly taped. A magazine got hold of the recording and published it. Prosecutors decided to launch legal action against Scheuch earlier this year. He refused to resign, branding the Klagenfurt court’s ruling an "utterly incorrect decision."

Commentators have not put into question whether lawmakers grant easy passages to entrepreneurs when it comes to obtaining Austrian citizenship. Almost 6,200 people became Austrian citizens last year, around 22 per cent fewer than in 2009. Most of them were subjected to regular restrictions considering crime records, employment and language skills. However, 19 people received their Austrian passports for "extraordinary achievements to the benefit of the Republic of Austria." Especially artists and athletes benefit from this option.

Dozens of professional footballers, hockey stars and handball players became Austrian citizens over the years after having lived and worked in the country for some years.

The best-known example of an artist’s naturalisation is Anna Netrebko. The Russian-born opera diva was awarded the Austrian citizenship despite a lack of German five years ago. There was little opposition against the decision due to her notoriety on stages across the world. The soprano singer still prefers English in interviews and chats with fans.

Vienna State Opera ballet star Karina Sarkissova – who was born in Russia – also became an Austrian citizen for her achievements for the country. Award-winning actor Christoph Waltz ("Inglourious Basterds," "Water for Elephants"), who was born in Austria but was a German citizen, was also provided with an Austrian passport under the special agreement applying to renowned artists and sports stars.

Long-term statistics show that around 40 respected personalities become Austrian citizens due to the option which leaves the final say to the federal government. Regulations regarding this procedure say that these people’s achievements must be sustainable and endure after they become Austrian citizens.

Scheuch’s lawyer and former Freedom Party (FPÖ) Justice Minister Dieter Böhmdorfer stressed his client was not legitimised by his political functions to influence naturalisation procedures. FPÖ juridical issues spokesman Peter Fichtenbauer – whose party cooperates with the FPK – argued in the same way. Fichtenbauer said Scheuch could not be found guilty since no one was awarded with an Austrian passport in connection with the taped phone chat. Fichtenbauer branded the verdict "draconic, if not brutal."

FPÖ chief Heinz Christian Strache claimed the conversation could have been taken out of context. The right-winger told a radio news programme yesterday evening (Thurs): "There was no project, no subsidy, no donations, no intervention and no naturalisation."

The FPÖ leader once more called the conviction "politically motivated." Strache added he was convinced Scheuch would be acquitted in the second instance. However, he admitted Scheuch "said certain things in a careless way" in the controversial conversation which was made public by weekly magazine News. Scheuch initially claimed the tape might be a fake before telling judges he could not remember whether it took place. The deputy governor of Carinthia then argued he hinted the possibility of a naturalisation to bring the conversation to an end. Scheuch – formerly FPÖ MP and close political partner of late BZÖ founder Jörg Haider – said the trial was a "campaign" against him by his rivals.

Peter Kaiser, head of the Social Democrats’ (SPÖ) Carinthian branch announced a motion of censure against the FPK head today. Kaiser once more appealed on Scheuch to step down. He said the People’s Party (ÖVP) should end its coalition with the FPK in the provincial parliament in Klagenfurt. The conservative party of Deputy Governor Josef Martinz explained after the Scheuch case verdict it decided to put the cooperation with the right-wing party "on hold" until the Graz appeal court’s final decision was presented.

Kaiser also suggested Carinthians should be asked to the polling booths sooner than planned due to the occurrences. The next provincial election is scheduled for 2014. The SPÖ Carinthia’s motion for early elections – which will be discussed in the Klagenfurt parliament shortly – needs a two-third majority to have any consequences. It is unlikely that the bid will garner enough support among other factions since the needed two-third majority is out of reach without the backing of the FPK.

The party of Governor Gerhard Dörfler pledged full support for Scheuch in an extraordinary summit in Pörtschach on Wednesday. Around 350 FPK members attended the assembly. Herbert Kickl, the general secretary of the federal FPÖ, also took part. He claimed judge Christian Liebhauser-Karl was "driven by his obsession to find Scheuch guilty."

Meanwhile, leading representatives of the Austrian judiciary have reacted to the attacks by the FPK and the FPÖ. Werner Zinkl, president of the Association of Austrian Judges, said yesterday: "You have to cope with it."

Zinkl admitted he did not want to discuss the right-wingers’ accusations in detail "to avoid helping them to more attention." However, he said their claims were "unjustified." Zinkl said accusations that judges’ verdicts were politically motivated also occurred when representatives of other parties were found guilty. "But it (making such accusations) may be more typical for the FPÖ."

Klaus Schröder, who represents Austria’s judges and lawyers in the labour union, said the attacks of the FPÖ "cannot be taken seriously." He announced: "No one can claim that judges are acting biased."

Experts have said the Scheuch scandal could negatively affect Strache’s attempt to succeed SPÖ boss Werner Faymann as federal chancellor. The FPÖ is seen neck and neck with the SPÖ in latest polls, clearly ahead of the ÖVP, the Green Party and the BZÖ. These surveys sent shockwaves through the country’s political elite as the rightist party used to do worse in polls than it performed in the preceding ballots. Analysts have explained many people connected to the FPÖ’s ideology are still hesitating when it comes to publicly revealing their support – even in anonymous telephone surveys.

Strache has always been popular among poorly skilled young Austrians and people with low incomes. Latest studies show that the politician – who took the FPÖ hot seat after Haider founded the BZÖ in 2005 – can be sure of rising backing among all social classes and age groups. His attempt to become the country’s leading political force may be thwarted by Scheuch’s conviction since it has always been the FPÖ which pointed the finger at allegedly rampant corruption in the SPÖ and the ÖVP.

Political scientist Peter Filzmaier said the FPÖ’s big chance to get away unharmed as far as its reputation was regarded was that the next federal vote was not taking place before 2013 unless the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition collapsed. Filzmaier also explained swing voters who previously backed the Social Democrats or the ÖVP could be scared off.

Political analyst Thomas Hofer claimed the conviction of Scheuch meant a tough blow for Strache’s attempt to reposition the FPÖ in the centre of the political spectrum. The right-wing faction garnered 17.5 per cent in the most recent general election in 2008, up from 11 per cent. It has the potential to garner 27 per cent to 30 per cent in the next election, according to researchers. The SPÖ bagged 29.3 per cent in 2008. The ÖVP – which has been headed by Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger since April – won 26 percentage points.

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