Letter from Vienna
from Our Own Correspondent
AUSTRIANS started the new year with a curiously typical lack of interest in news that banker Gerhard Ronda is finally to be investigated over allegations that he masterminded the spread of Bernie Madoff’s pyramid scheme to the world.
The former CEO of Bank Austria was one of the country’s most powerful financial figures, his bank owning 80 percent of firms on the Vienna stock exchange. Randa kept an iron control over the nation with his “jobs carousel”, which offered politicians jobs in the Bank Austria empire as a reward for loyal service. To outsiders, the investigation was a sign he would at last pay the price for his role in the world’s biggest financial fraud.
In reality, it is just for show. Like many another politically connected case, even if it goes to trial nothing will happen.
Take former MEP Ernst Strasser. Before our recent general election he was jailed for accepting bribes from undercover Sunday Times reporters. As expected, after the election he was cleared by the high court on a technicality so bizarre that even his defense team had not thought of it. Seemingly, it is only illegal to bribe a person in office for a specific reason; a more general bribe, of the sort designed to get a politician in the pocket, does not count.
Another case involved Tina Krones-Taurer, who stole $1.3m from children’s charity World Vision in part to fund former MEP Karl Habsburg’s political career. Like Strasser she was publicly jailed, but then quietly allowed to stay free after the judge “forgot” to sign the paperwork.
But having persuaded the world that Hitler was German and Beethoven was Austrian, it’s easy to understand why outsiders who come here for The Sound of Music and Sacher Torte forget that Austria was also home to the spy classic, The Third Man, or spymaster Prince Metternich.
Austrians have managed to hide corruption in politics by giving MPs control of the prosecutors, and prosecutors control of the police. Police let prosecutors know about “sensitive” cases, and they in turn let their political bosses know, who then issue orders on which politically sensitive cases will not go ahead. This never causes any red faces, as officials are not obliged to admit an investigation has been quietly “shelved”.
Austria, after all, is a country in which wanted posters are issued with the faces pixelated, and the interior ministry deletes press releases after a week so they don’t breach a criminal’s right to privacy.
This famous looking-the-other-way even featured in the case of Josef Eritzl, or “Mr F” as he was known here to protect his privacy. He locked his daughter up in a basement for 24 years, having seven children with her along the way. Not only did the neighbours and his wife see nothing, but he even brought up three of the children, claiming they were “foundlings” he had discovered on the street. Here gullibility might stretch credibility, but, after all, this is Austria, where even incestuous kidnappers are entitled to secrecy and we shouldn’t ask too many questions.
The culture of “anonymous denunciation” also flourishes. Someone with a grudge can go into a police station and make the wildest accusations, but the police don’t have to let the accused, or a curious journalist, know the accuser’s name. Politically sensitive cases can be shelved, or indeed ordered to go ahead against political rivals — or troublesome reporters.
As a reporter at the respected Vienna daily newspaper, Die Presse, complained alter she was recently denounced: “In a country in which the. horrors of the Holocaust were caused in part by anonymous allegations by people against their Jewish neighbours, you’d think the tradition of anonymous denunciation would no longer be welcome.”