He is unable to participate in an interview this evening because he has to head off to Vienna, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani told the U.S. newsmagazine The Atlantic last Thursday. But it wasn't likely intended as a pleasure trip. It more likely had to do with the issue that is rocking U.S. politics at the moment and was for the purpose of spreading conspiracy theories about Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, the leading Democratic candidate to challenge Trump in the race for the U.S. presidency.
The younger Biden has been accused in some circles of involvement in a 2015 corruption scandal in Ukraine. And in a telephone call last July, Trump appears to have exerted pressure on the newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into Hunter Biden.
What does any of that have to do with Vienna? Dymitro Firtash, one of the most powerful Ukrainian oligarchs, has been the subject of ongoing extradition proceedings in the Austrian capital since 2014, and he is wanted by the U.S. judiciary. Firtash still has extremely good connections in Ukraine. Recently, for example, a sworn affidavit from former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin surfaced that was supposed to be submitted on Firtash's behalf. The declaration included the accusations against Biden. In other words, the oligarch's case in Vienna appears to be directly related to the Ukraine affair that is roiling U.S. domestic affairs.
Both Firtash and Giuliani, though, deny that they intended to meet with each other. "Mr. Firtash states that there was no contact between him and Mr. Giuliani and there were likewise no plans for a meeting," Firtash's spokesman told DER STANDARD. The oligarch's office declined to confirm the authenticity of the Shokin declaration. Much is at stake for Ukrainian oligarch: The U.S. judiciary accuses him of having bribed Indian officials to the disadvantage of an American company. That's the basis of the extradition request.
Austria's judiciary has been dealing with the extradition proceedings for years. In an initial ruling, a criminal court in Vienna blocked the oligarch's extradition, essentially arguing that the request from the U.S. was politically motivated – an attempt to sideline a former associate of ex-Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. But in early 2017, a regional court in Vienna overturned that ruling. Following that verdict, Firtash was arrested and subsequently released on 125-million-euro bail. He was also required to turn in his passport.
The regional court ruling put the ball into the court of Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandsetter, because whether or not to extradite is ultimately a political decision. But the minster, a member of the center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), was spared from having to make a judgment in the legally and politically sensitive issue because Firtash appealed to Austria's Supreme Court of Justice, arguing his fundamental and human rights had been violated. At the same time, the Procurator General's Office filed a complaint with the Supreme Court of Justice, questioning the legality of the lower court's ruling and applying for it to be declared null and void.
The Austrian high court rejected both applications and in July, Justice Minister Clemens Jabloner authorized the extradition. In the meantime, however, Firtash's lawyers had applied for the case to be reopened, arguing that new evidence had emerged. The Viennese criminal court stayed the extradition as a result and is now waiting for documents to be filed. Only then will the court decide whether or not to reopen the case.
A Former Justice Minister on the Legal Team
Dieter Böhmdorfer, who served as Austria's justice minister as a member of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) from 2000 to 2004, is also a member of Firtash's legal team. And he's not the only former senior Austrian politician with links to Firtash. Since 2014, the oligarch has primarily recruited from the ranks of conservative politicians. He sponsored the Agency for the Modernization of Ukraine, for example, an NGO that was to draw up reform proposals for the war-ravaged country. It's president was Michael Spindelegger, the former chair of the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) who also served as vice chancellor. He took his adviser Johannes Kasal along with him to the agency, which is still registered at Kasal's address today, although Spindelegger claims it is no longer active. He said the salary "was commensurate to customary international consulting rates."
Journalists seeking to contact Firtash must go through the former spokesperson of another ex-chair of the ÖVP. Firtash's media relations are handled by Daniel Kapp, who once served as spokesman for then ÖVP head Josef Pröll and is still well-connected within the party. But Kapp denies having brought Spindelegger and Firtash together.
Firtash also maintains close ties with the Austrian bank Raiffeisen. In 2004, Raiffeisen Investment (RIAG) became his trustee in a joint venture with the Russian energy giant Gazprom, which attracted the attention of a parliamentary investigative committee in 2007. At the time, the bank claimed to have vetted Firtash for possible contacts with criminal organizations. Firtash and his company RosUkrEnergo, though, were also on the radar of the American authorities. The company acted as an intermediary for Russian natural gas and Kiev was involved in a dispute with Moscow about gas prices at the time.
In 2007, Firtash shifted his operations to Vienna, which became his primary base after the end of the pro-Russian government in Kiev and the domestic turbulence that jolted Ukraine from 2013 onward. The extradition proceedings have dogged him in Austria ever since. Given the unlikeliness of a reversal of the Austrian Supreme Court ruling, the only way out for Firtash is for the U.S. to waive his extradition. Enter Giuliani and Trump, with their campaign against the Biden family.
The investigations into Firtash began under the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. Biden, as vice president at the time, put pressure on Ukraine to remove then-Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, a step the Ukrainian government ultimately took. Shokin now claims that this was done to shut down investigations into Biden's son Hunter, who in 2014 was appointed to the board of Buresma, Ukraine's largest private gas company. But there was also considerable pressure for Shokin's removal from EU member states, who believed he hadn't done nearly enough in the fight against corruption.
A Sudden Issue in the U.S. Election Campaign
This year, the alleged scandal surrounding Biden has returned to the spotlight with the now notorious telephone call between President Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart Zelensky, in which the U.S. president appeared to suggest that he wouldn't release military aid for Ukraine unless Kiev reopened its investigation into Hunter Biden. Notably, two men who are part of Giuliani's immediate circle worked for Firtash: Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. They were arrested last week in the U.S. and have been charged with making illegal party donations. Giuliani, meanwhile, was paid $500,000 for working with them.
They aren't the first acquaintances of Firtash to be arrested by the U.S. judiciary. In March 2019, a court convicted Paul Manafort, the prominent former Trump aid who was previously at the center of the scandal surrounding possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. Manafort was appointed Trump's campaign manager in summer 2014, having previously worked for Ukrainian President Yanukovych. He had also planned a $900 million New York real estate project with Firtash and others. But nothing ever came of it. (Fabian Schmid, Renate Graber, 15.10.2019)