Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, Vienna remains a spy haven, swarming with foreign agents who think nothing of killing in broad daylight while the Austrian authorities turn a blind eye, experts said.
Vienna formed the backdrop to Orson Welles’ legendary spy thriller The Third Man in 1949, but even today it remains a hive of secret service activity.
“Austria is still a favorite place for agents. They’re frequently known to the authorities, but rarely hindered. Everything is handled courteously and diplomatically. There’s a long tradition in that,” said Siegfried Beer, director of the Austrian Center for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies at the University of Graz.
In the latest addition to a growing list of cases that look unlikely ever to be resolved, a Chechen dissident, Umar Israilov, was gunned down in broad daylight in the Austrian capital on Jan. 23.
Other cases include the 1989 killing of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, the head of a Kurdish opposition group in Iranian Kurdistan, and the attempted kidnapping in October of Kazakhstan’s former intelligence chief Alnur Musayev. Both were living in exile in Austria.
“Austria is a textbook case for this sort of operation that always remains unresolved. As soon as there is any sort of political link, the authorities start acting very strangely,” said journalist Kid Moechel, an author of a book on the subject.
For Peter Pilz, defense expert for the opposition Green party, “Some regimes such as Russia and Iran enjoy a freedom to do as they please in Vienna that they would never enjoy elsewhere.”
“Quite simply, the Austrian authorities don’t want to jeopardize their country’s economic interests,” the parliamentarian said.
He accused the Austrian Interior Ministry of trying to “cover up” the murder of Israilov, who had repeatedly asked for special police protection before he was gunned down while out grocery shopping last month.
Vienna, whose geographical position makes it a point of contact between East and West and North and South, has one of the highest densities of spies in the world, experts said.
It is home to international groups such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, OPEC and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
In all, at least 17,000 diplomats are based in Vienna, equivalent to around 1 percent of the city’s population, official figures show.
“Around half of these have links to the secret services,” Beer said.
Politician Pilz asserted that Vienna is also “a hub where it’s very easy to buy arms or hide or launder money.”
However, the advent in recent years of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Austria, including around 20,000 Chechens, is providing new impetus for secret service activity.