Russia’s Province of Austria

The Viennese political elite are entering a world of pain, as one of the heroes of the film The Big Lebowski would say. The law nihilists in Vienna can indeed have some serious problems. Vienna thought that Lithuania is some insignificant country and that there would not be much risk in obeying Moscow and releasing Mikhail Golovatov, a war crimes suspect in a Soviet-perpetrated massacre case. The Viennese officials did not expect such condemnation from the Baltic countries and interest in their decision in Austria itself. The Austrian scandal was overshadowed in Vilnius for a few days by Friday’s terror in Norway (interestingly, Anders Behring Breivik broke up with his Lithuanian girlfriend some four-to-five years ago, according to a statement to by a Pole, who was a former work colleague of Breivik, in the telecommunication company Enitel 10 years ago). Regardless, Austria, which could appear to be ruled by phone calls from Russian officials, and the issue of the rule of law in the EU remain high on the agenda of Lithuanian, Austrian and other EU politicians. Unnamed “diplomatic sources” told Lietuvos Rytas TV that Russian PM Vladimir Putin made his phone call to Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann, demanding the release of Golovatov, although the Lithuanian ambassador in Vienna, who was called back to Vilnius “for consultations” for an unlimited time, refused to confirm or deny such information publicly.

Golovatov, a 62-year old Russian citizen, was detained in the Vienna airport on July 14 on a European arrest warrant issued by the Lithuanian authorities. He is a KGB reserve colonel and was the commander of the elite KGB group Alpha back in January 1991. Alpha was the main storming force of the Soviet army during the Soviet aggression on independent Lithuania in January of 1991, when 14 unarmed civilians were killed and some 1,000 injured during the Soviet storm on the TV center and TV tower in Vilnius. On July 15, he was freed by Austria and immediately left for Moscow.

In his interview with Russian news agency RIA Novosti, Golovatov praised Sergey Nechayev, Russian ambassador in Vienna. “The ambassador was with us [Golovatov and an officer of the Russian embassy’s security service] until 5:00 in the morning and constantly had phone conversations with the Austrian prosecutor, [Austrian] deputy minister of foreign affairs and the service of [Austrian] Interior Ministry,” Golovatov said. According to him, earlier Nechayev informed the FSB (former KGB), the Russian foreign intelligence service and the Russian Foreign Ministry, about the detention of Golovatov in the airport on his arrival in Vienna.

On July 18, Lithuania handed a note to Austria asking it to explain the weird behavior by the Austrians. On July 19, Latvia handed a similar note to the Austrian ambassador in Riga. On July 19, the Estonian foreign minister also asked the Austrian ambassador in Tallinn to come to the Estonian Foreign Ministry to explain the Austrian action.

Austria in its responses to the Baltic countries pointed out that it has an opt-out from the rules regarding the European arrest warrant for crimes committed before 2002. On the basis of that opt-out, EU Justice Minister Viviane Reding stated that Austria had a right to its action, but, according to this commissioner from Luxembourg, Austria was wrong from the political point of view. Leonidas Donskis, Lithuanian member of the European Parliament, wrote a letter to MEPs of his liberal group ALDE about the “dangerous precedent” perpetrated by Austria. According to Vilija Aleknaite-Abramikiene, MP of the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, it is possible (though she is not 100 percent sure yet) that the Lithuanian translation of the Austrian opt-out regarding the European arrest warrant for crimes committed before 2002 was not published in the Official Journal of the European Union and, therefore, practicing that opt-out by Austria in the case of a Lithuania-issued European arrest warrant is illegal, according to EU legislation.

Anyway, the European arrest warrant automatically turns into extradition procedures for crimes before 2002 in the case of Austria, and those extradition procedures were conducted by the Austrians in an unprecedented way. The Balkan war-time Bosnian general Jovan Divjak has been under arrest in Austria since March due to an arrest warrant issued by Serbia, which is not even an EU member, while Golovatov was not arrested – he was just detained and kept for a few hours in the Vienna airport.

Audronius Azubalis, Lithuanian foreign minister, described the Austrian response to the Lithuanian note as unsatisfactory. He was echoed by Latvian Justice Minister Aivars Stokenbergs, who stated that the weird decision in the Golovatov case was made by Austria due to the expectations of mass investments from Russia. Austria expects to become the gas hub of Gazprom’s South Stream pipeline, though officially Austria does not object to the EU’s rival project, Nabucco (Turkey-Austria pipeline) as well. Some 40 percent of Russian gas exports to Europe now go via Austria, according to Azubalis. Austria is the traditional hub for Russian spies, and headquarters of numerous Gazprom subsidiaries.

“Austrian law enforcement agencies arrested the Russian citizen, who had been incriminated in participation in the events in Vilnius, the then-capital of the Lithuanian SSR, in January 1991, in the transit zone at Vienna’s Schwechat airport on July 14 under a Lithuanian European arrest warrant. When considering this essentially farfetched warrant, Austrian justice showed high professionalism and impartiality and prevented Austria from being dragged into the dirty political intrigues of the mala fide politicians of a third country, who want to gain political mileage by settling scores with their own historical past. I’m sure this isn’t the best way to assert a new state identity. After carefully studying the so-called ‘grounds’ submitted by Lithuania, Austrian judicial bodies found them unconvincing, unspecific and politicized. Therefore, an objective legal decision was taken, permitting Mikhail Golovatov to leave Austria on July 15 already,” Nechayev, Russian ambassador in Vienna, told the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS.

Lithuania proclaimed re-establishment of its independence on March 11, 1990 and the West never recognized Baltic countries as a legitimate part of the USSR. Historically, Russia, as a centralized state, is a much younger country than Lithuania.
Due to those public insults from Nechayev, on July 20, Evaldas Ignatavicius, Lithuanian vice-minister of foreign affairs, met with Vladimir Chkhikvadze, ambassador of Russia to Lithuania, and handed him a note. Czech, Hungarian and Bulgarian foreign ministers expressed their solidarity with Lithuania regarding prosecution of the perpetrators of the massacre of January 1991 during their phone conversations with Azubalis. Lithuania issued the massacre-related European arrest warrants for 21 citizens of Russia and two citizens of Belarus. The Interpol search was not announced due to protests from Russia and Belarus.

On July 21, Austrian Chancellor Faymann stated that he is not going to apologize for the Golovatov scandal. On the eve of his statement, the site of Die Presse, one of Austria’s major newspapers, organized an Internet survey of its readers regarding the apology to Lithuania: 69 percent stated that Austria should apologize to Lithuania for the Golovatov case; 15 percent stated that Austria should not apologize and 16 percent of Die Presse readers had no opinion about it. The mayor of Salzburg sent a letter with apologies for Golovatov’s escape to the Vilnius mayor. Jolita Venckute, correspondent of the daily Lietuvos Rytas in German-speaking countries, wrote that, according to a social research study, the majority of Austrians believe that their legal system is totally corrupt, and only eight percent of Austrians expressed their trust in Austrian law-and-order institutions.

Austrian Green MP Peter Pilz has information about two secret meetings between officials of the Austrian justice and interior ministries on July 15 to create a plan for Golovatov’s escape. Pilz told the Austrian and Lithuanian media about the massive pressure from Russian officials, which forced the Austrian law-and-order institutions to create “a plan for escape” regarding Golovatov by sending an ultimatum to Lithuanian prosecutors with the demand to provide detailed answers regarding the case within several hours, expecting that it would be physically impossible to do so. The answers were given, but nobody was interested in the Lithuanian response in Vienna. The Austrian Green Party wants an investigation by the Austrian parliament, but other Austrian political parties, including the far right, are hostile to this idea.

The Golovatov scandal provoked some exchange of critical remarks inside Lithuania. On July 21, President Dalia Grybauskaite, visiting one of two possible sites for Lithuania’s future LNG terminal (80 percent of its construction will be financed by the Lithuanian state-owned Klaipedos Nafta) near Klaipeda, described the calls of Emanuelis Zingeris, chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, for the break up of diplomatic relations with Austria as “hysteria.”
“I’m elected to the parliament and I say what I find necessary to say,” Zingeris responded in Vilnius, reacting to Grybauskaite’s remark.

Meanwhile, artist Saulius Paukstys, who was the author of the idea to build the monument to Frank Zappa in Vilnius, keeps sending rotten eggs by post to the Austrian embassy in Vilnius, and the Facebook group, named “Geda Austrijai!” (“Shame on Austria!”), creates pictures condemning Austria – one such picture presents the faces of the three “heroes,” as they call them, of Austria: Adolf Hitler, Josef Fritzl (he captured and imprisoned a little girl in his house’s basement for many years in the Austrian town of Amstetten) and Putin with a flag of Austria behind them.

By Rokas M. Tracevskis (July 27, 2011)