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The Firebugs

A German right wing journalist is suspected to have paid for an arson attack in Ukraine. Did he do that for Vladimir Putin?

After the arson attack: the Hungarian Cultural Institute in Uzhhorod (Ukraine) Foto: Polizei Ukraine

This text was published in German language on February 18th, 2019. The translation was done by Michael Dorrity. The original text can be found here.

Der Original-Text auf Deutsch findet sich hier.

BERLIN / KRAKOW / UZHHOROD taz | The videoclip is short, barely a minute in length, video surveillance captured images of a man at 4:24 AM on the 4th of February 2018 in Uzhhorod, in the far west of Ukraine.

The office of the „Transcarpathian Society for Hungarian Culture“ is housed in a salmon-coloured building and two men are standing in front, with one launching an incendiary device. Flames flare up and though nobody is hurt, the attack is politically highly explosive.

Reports from the Ukrainian domestic secret service SBU find that two polish neonazis Andrian M. and Tomasz S. checked into in a hotel in Uzhhorod under their own names on the day of the attack. Other video footage shows both men with their faces uncovered, mobile phone data also confirms their location and there are burn marks on their clothes. „Ukrainian authorities have passed their files on to Polish colleagues“ said Hosip Borto, vice-president of the district council of Transcarpathia and the Hungarian Centre for Culture.

Project: Right-wing populists in the EU transnationally fight liberal Europe. The taz and the partner media in the research network Europe's Far Right reveal their agenda, strategies and networks

Partners: taz, Libération (Paris), Falter (Vienna), Gazeta ­Wyborcza (Warsaw), HVG (Budapest), Internazionale (Rom), WOZ (Zurich).

Funding: The project is supported by the Kartographen scholarship of the Mercator Foundation, the 'Reporters in the Field' scholarship of the Bosch Foundation, the Otto Brenner and taz Panter Foundation.

Read more (German) taz.de/efr

Both parties admit to the crime, and they name Michal P. as their contractor. P. is a Polish citizen, 30 years old, and a militiaman whose CV boasts a variety of neonazi activity. The organised crime division of the public prosecutor's office in Warsaw is bringing charges against P. for a number of criminal activities, including financing and preparing terrorist crimes abroad. M. and S. are currently facing a number of charges, including first degree arson.

On the 14th of January , proceedings against all three began in room L-235 of the criminal division of the district court in Krakow-Podgórze, P.'s place of residence. P admits to the attack but claims to have been incited by a German publicist. His name; Manuel Ochsenreiter, who he claims paid him 1500 euro.

Why Transcarpathia is of interest to the Right

The accused admits to the attack but claims to have been incited by a German publicist. His name: Manuel Ochsenreiter.

When the story reached Germany, it ignited serious interest in the AfD party. After all, Manuel Ochsenreiter is not only an important publicist in the far-right media landscape, but also has close connections within the party. Ochsenreiter has worked as a consultant for Bundestag member Markus Frohnmaier since September 2018. All three; P., Ochsenreiter and Frohnmaier, have long been active in radical right networks with a pro-Russian orientation.

Transcarpathia is of extreme interest to these networks: Of the 1.25 million residents, 150,000 are ethnically Hungarian. The government in Budapest accuses Ukraine of discriminating against these Hungarians, limiting education in the Hungarian language by way of a school law from 2017 for instance. For its part, Kiev does not look kindly on Budapest offering Hungarian passports to Ukrainians with Hungarian roots. Indeed, there is a fear that Hungary could eventually claim parts of the region as its own.

Transcarpathia is ideal ground from which to further destabilise Ukraine. Were Ukrainian Neo-Nazis suspected of an attack on the Hungarian minority, Ukraine would have a new conflict on its western front; a thoroughly attractive scenario for Russia.

Airport Berlin Tegel: the suspected handover

The ARD-Magazine Kontraste and the online portal T-Online have both seen the Polish legal documents pertaining to the attack in Uzhhorod and issued their first report on the case, according to which the state prosecutors office in Krakow holds Ochsenreiter responsable for financing the attack. A conclusion supported not only by P.'s statement, but also by Whats App-Chats contained in the legal documents.

According to these, Michal P. met with Ochsenreiter at Berlin-Tegel airport on the 7th of February 2018, receiving 1,000 euros in cash, having already been advanced 500 to Poland. A chat between P. and his wife appears to confirm this; „And what time are you meeting Manuel?“ she asks. „At 11:30, the return flight is at 19:30, with a change in Warsaw. I'll take a taxi though, I don't want to take the train with so much cash on me“ is the response.

Ochsenreiter has refuted these accusations via the website of the far-right magazine Zuerst! of which he is chief-editor. Queries made by the Taz via email have gone unanswered and an attempt to reach him by telephone at Zuerst! got no further than the publisher's headquarters, where we were summarily dismissed; „you'll get no help from me“ we were told.

In summer 2016, a year and a half before the attack in Uzhhorod, the Taz had met with a key-player in the case, Michal P., regarding a Report on paramilitary groups in Poland.

Michal P., key-figure in the attack

P. mentioned Ochsenreiter of his own accord at the time. According to him, the most important thing for Ochsenreiter was the management of Owarzyszenie Jednostka Strzelecka 2039, or SJS 2039, which can roughly be translated as ‚gun club‘. SJS 2039 is a paramilitary unit, founded by P. himself. One of the two men accused of the arson attack in Uzghorod, Adrian M, has himself previously posted photos of SJS on facebook. Self-proclaimed homeland security squads such as SJS 2039 are numerous in Poland. Though privately organised, the Polish military is attempting to integrate them, and people such as P can carry out shooting exercises for adolescents with full permission from the state.

At the time, the SJS 2039 office was a small room in a decrepit villa in Krakow, with ammunition boxes serving as door stops. P was 28 years old at the meeting in summer 2016, in uniform and with his blond hair sharply parted, posing with his rifle, quite unabashed.

In conversation with the Taz, P. claimed that the Americans were occupying Germany with military bases up to this day, that Adolf Hitler was a social politician, that globalisation is destroying national states, that multiculturalism is barbaric and that people's distinctive physical appearances should be maintained. He described himself as a nordic, claiming; „when I die, it'll be in battle.“

Against the West – for Russia

At the time, P. was a member of an far-right group, calling itself itself „Falanga.“ In 2015, photos of Falanga-men wearing masks, camouflage, and carrying rifles and batons were published on Falanga's message-page. The men can be seen standing on the Ukrainian boarder, allegedly having hunted for refugees. This photo, showing masked men carrying firearms, was posted by the group itself.

P. can do nothing with the West, with Russia on the other hand a lot more; a fairly uncommon position for the polish far-right. In summer 2016, P. talked quite frankly to the Taz about the Falanga group's activities on the Russian side of the Donbass region, as well as their fighting for Bashar Al-Assad in Syria. Though he himself was not on the ground, he organised passage for others and took care of the „Press work.“ He also claims to have written the manifesto for the pro-Russian, far-right party Zmiana. Indeed, comments and images on Facebook are proof enough that he was active in the party. Michal P. has a far-right mind-set, closely connected to Putin's Russia: exactly Manuel Ochsenreiter's line.

Signs of Manuel Ochsenreiter

The first mention of Ochsenreiter's name in connection with the attack, before it was taken up by the court in Krakow, was made by Anton Shekhovtsov. The political scientist, who recently carried out research in Vienna, is one the most astute observers of cooperation between Putin's Russia and the far-right in Western Europe, his book „Tango Noir“ has become a reference work on the subject. At the beginning of 2019, shortly before the trial in Krakow, the polish courts spoke of a „German publicist with close connections to Poland's far-right“ though they did not mention a name. On the 6th January Shekhovtsov tweeted that it may have been a ‚false flag‘ operation, with Ochsenreiter potentially involved.

At the beginning of February Shekhovtsov, a gaunt man with a small beard, sat drinking a beer in a hotel lobby in Berlin: „It was obvious to me straight away, this could only be Ochsenreiter“ says Shekhovtsov and explains what led him to this conclusion.

Ochsenreiter is quite a colourful character, an online search will show him in quite a variety of settings; posing in sunglasses with Syrian fighters; shaking hands with the former president of Iran Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and at the new right institute for State Policy in Schnellroda and the Donbass. Ochsenreiter, 42 years old and married to a Syrian woman, grew up in Allgäu. As a young man he was involved with the Junge Union, the German conservative parties youth organization and later in the nationalistic Witikobund. Indeed, during his studies he was part of a duelling fraternity.

He ran the department of national affairs at the Junge Freiheit newspaper, working subsequently as chief-editor for the far-right Deutsche Militärzeitschrift, and has run the far-right monthly magazine Zuerst! since 2011. He reported from Serbia, East Ukraine and the Middle East, lauded in his circles as a sort of Peter Scholl-Latour of the New Right. He has given lecture-tours and makes appearances on Russia Today and the Iranian news agency Fars where he has defended Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad among others. In 2014, occupying the same stage as Holocaust deniers, he spoke at the „New Horizon“ conference in Tehran on the ‚Israeli lobby in Germany‘.

Connections with the fascist ideologue Dugin

Political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov has been following Ochsenreiter for some time. According to Shekhovtsov, Ochsenreiter is playing a crucial role in taking Western Europe's far right toward Moscow. He claims the German National met Alexander Dugin at the end of 2012. Dugin, a fascist ideologue praised as a visionary of neo-euroasian thought, has been referred to by Ochsenreiter as a ‚fatherly friend.‘ „After that“ says Shekhovtsov „Ochsenreiter's pro-kremlin activities began in earnest.“ Ochsenreiter also appeared regularly as a commentator in Russian state media at the time.

The proximity of Ochsenreiter's gang with other right-wing, Russia-friendly groups can be seen in a photo taken in Warsaw in 2015. Four men sit on a podium in front of a black flack on which two rifles are crossed over a white circle. One of the men is Ochsenreiter, on his right is Michal P., currently facing charges for the arson attack. The head of Falanga, P.'s nazi-group, is also there. The fourth man is Mateusz Piskorski.

Piskorski, founder of the Zmiana party, for which P. was also active, is another key figure in the network of pro-Russian associations who collaborate with the far-right in Europe. His organisation „The European Centre for Geopolitical analysis“ is crucial, and was similarly invited to the podium discussion in Warsaw. The main task of the centre is to organise election observation missions for western politicians in Eastern Europe, particularlyin separatist areas loyal to the Kremlin, or in areas annexed in breach of international law such as Crimea. Enjoying support from members of parliament from the AfD, the Austrian FPÖ or the Italian Lega Nord, the Kremlin's horizons are thus expanded. „In March 2014, Piskorski invited Ochsenreiter to observe the so-called referendum in Crimea“, says Shekhotsov „that was his entry into Crimea.“

An association, which no longer exists?

In April 2016 Piskorski and Ochsenreiter founded an organisation; the „German Centre for Euroasian Studies,“ with Ochsenreiter's subsequent employer Markus Frohnmaier present at the launch. This is where the AfD reentered the game. Recently questioned about the association, Frohnmaier claimed it no longer exists, despite it still being listed in the Associations Register. Ochsenreiter is chairman, and Piskorski deputy chairman. The latter was arrested on charges of spying for Russia shortly after the launch of the association and has been in custody since. He was taken to court for the first time in April 2018.

The term ‚Eurasia‘ was coined by the Kremlin, a cipher for efforts to push back US influence in Europe. The goal is a „Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok.“ For members of the far-right such as Pickorski, Ochsenreiter or P., forging closer ties to authoritarian Russia is the most effective way to liberate Europe from everything they despise; liberalism, homosexuality, Islam, Blacks, Jews, ‚globalisation‘ and ‚elites‘. Their mentor is Alexander Dugin, the Russian theorist who allegedly whispers in Putin's ear and to whom Piskorski and Ochsenreiter are equally close. Dugin's books are published in Germany by Dietmar Munier, also responsible for publishing the monthly far-right magazine Zuerst! of which Ochsenreiter is chief-editor.

As a pro-Russian orientation begins to permeate the AfD, the party becomes more and more appealing to Ochsenreiter, who continues to make contacts within it. During a regional congress on Russia in Saxony-Anhalt, Ochsenreiter was on stage next to State-Chair André Poggenburg. He was also present as the party's fraction in the regional parliament signed a treaty calling for the repeal of sanctions on Russia. He additionally accompanied AfD politicians on visits to Russia, Donetsk and Crimea.

Ochsenreiter's former employer: An AfD lawmaker

Ochsenreiters contact with Markus Frohnmaier, a 28 year old AfD politican who currently has a seat in the Bundestag, is particularly intimite. Frohnmaier was president of the AfD youth organisation Junge Alternative, after which he served as spokesman for the former AfD president Frauke Petry, moving on to work for Alice Wiedel, currently president of the parliamentary faction. In June 2016, Ochsenreiter praised Frohnmaier in a lengthy Zuerst! article as „the most popular young politician in the party.“ The article also examined visits to Belgrade, Saint Petersburg and Donetsk, on which Frohnmaier was accompanied by editors of Zuerst!.

He is suspected of having ordered the attack in Ukraine: Manuel Ochsenreiter Foto: imago/Itar-Tass

Frohnmaier was similarly delighted with Ochsenreiter, whose far-right views present no problem to him. „What's relevant is the work done here in the Bundestag“ which in an interview with the taz in November 2018 Frohnmaier characterised as very good. Zuerst! was a trusted medium for high ranking party members and in a further interview with the taz in January, Frohnmaier claimed to value Ochsenreiter, his experiences and his good work a great deal.

At this point Shekhovtsov had long since published his tweet on Ochsenreiter's possible involvement in the arson attack in Uzhhorod. As accusations emerged, Frohnmaier stood by his colleague, proclaiming that one is still innocent till proven guilty. He only held this line for a couple of days however. By mid-January they had apparently agreed, on Ochsenreiter's initiative, to a mutual separation and by mid-February an end to their working relationship. Frohnmaier no longer wishes to be quoted with regard to Ochsenreiter.

Reports from Berlin's public prosecutor.

In the meantime, the Public Prosecutor's office in Berlin has also issued a report. In response to enquiries made by the taz, they confirmed there is initial suspicion of arson. The investigation however will take time and a letter of request has been sent to Poland. In the meantime, no evidence of further involvement of German nationals exists.

Zuerst! publisher Munier issued a statement at the beginning of February calling for Ochsenreiter's exoneration. The accusations were nothing more than an ‚attempted character-assassination,‘ a ‚Polish-Ukrainian campaign of disinformation.‘ „I am quite sure“ said Munier „that the American secret service is also involved.“

It is also possible that Ochsenreiter used Munier's paper to give the attack the appropriate political spin. On the day of the attack, a headline in Zuerst! ran „Budapest calls for an OSCE mission in West Ukraine“. The article connects the attack with the law strongly limiting the use of Hungarian in classrooms, which had just been ratified at the time. The take is quite clear, Ukraine is the aggressor; precisely the same image which Russia promotes.

Writing from Casablanca, Ochsenreiter published a statement on Facebook on the 11th February 2019, decrying Ukraine as a „failed state with a decaying economy and a dysfunctional, corrupt government“ and speaking of an „absurd suspicion, the result of an obvious secret service campaign.“

He then posted messages of solidarity received from pro-Russian politicians in Moldova and Italy, from Jürgen Elsässer, chief editor for Compact, as well as from the fascist, Russian theorist Alexander Dugin; his ‚fatherly friend‘. Dugin, for his part, declared the ‚campaign‘ against Ochsenreiter evidence that we are „living in the middle of a total information war,“ the other side are seeking „the complete economic and social extermination of individuals who dare to successfully fight the western liberal mainstream“.

Contributors: Bernhard Clasen, Gabriele Lesser

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