Putin Has a Really Big Trojan Horse in Germany

  • Anti-immigrant AfD gets third of votes from Russian speakers
  • Populists to play key role in tight September national vote

Eugen Schmidt, a computer programmer from Cologne in western Germany, credits the television stations controlled by Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin for exposing what he says local media won’t -- the dangers of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy for Muslim immigrants.

A native of the Soviet Union, he was a loyal supporter of Merkel’s Christian Democrats in the years since he moved with his family to Germany in 1999. But four years ago, he defected to the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany, or AfD, as the incoming wave of refugees from violence in the Arab world began to swell.

Events in January of last year turned the 41-year-old from a quiet AfD supporter to grassroots activist and widely read blogger. First, hundreds of women were sexually assaulted at New Year celebrations here by men mainly from North Africa. And then, for five days, he says German media “kept absolutely quiet” about an attack that shocked the nation when its true scale became public.

“That was the last straw for me,” Schmidt said over coffee in a cafe near Cologne’s central square, one of several areas of Germany where the attacks happened. “It only came out through Russian media and Facebook.”

Eugen Schmidt (center)

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Schmidt’s version of events fits the anti-establishment narrative, fueled by an initial police report that described a relatively peaceful night. While local media covered the news within hours, it took national outlets several days to pick up the story of the unprecedented attacks.

Merkel, Putin’s most powerful critic in Europe, is fighting to extend her 12 years as chancellor in September. Her campaign aides are convinced the Kremlin is working to thwart her. Intelligence officials warn of Russian cyber attacks aimed at manipulating the vote.

But if Putin has a Trojan Horse in German politics, it’s an estimated 2.5 million voters who like Schmidt speak Russian and make up the country’s largest minority voting bloc. Most so-called Russian Germans have ancestors who moved to the Russian Empire to farm and began to return en masse after the Cold War. Up to three-fifths of these people consider Russian TV more trustworthy than domestic broadcasts and 40 percent say it’s their main source of news, a survey by the Bonn-based Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom shows.

So far, polls show Merkel more popular than her Social Democrat challenger Martin Schulz, though her CDU’s margin over his SPD is much narrower. The AfD has pulled support mainly from Merkel, luring an estimated 1.5 million Russian speakers like Schmidt with its strident opposition to the largest flow of migrants into Europe since the Second World War.

Merkel Hardens

Merkel has hardened her rhetoric on immigrants in recent weeks. At a rally April 27, she sought to defuse far-right criticism over the Cologne attacks, accusing the state government -- controlled by her rivals, the Social Democrats -- of “sweeping under the carpet” failures by police to prevent them.

Schmidt and his allies aren’t convinced.

He now dedicates his free time to promoting AfD, particularly among the Russian Germans who currently make up about a third of the party’s backers. His Russian language blog has drawn as many as 110,000 readers. He spent one recent Saturday outside a supermarket that sells Russian staples such as pelmeni and vodka, passing out dual-language leaflets with bullet points like, “Islam doesn’t fit into our values and isn’t part of Germany.”

For a QuickTake on the issue of asylum in European politics, click here.
For a QuickTake on Angela Merkel, click here.

AfD, formed in 2013, has seen its poll ratings fall back from recent highs, but at 8 percent, it is still on track to become the first right-wing party to enter the national parliament since World War II. With AfD’s rise hurting the CDU more than the SPD, it could also be enough to hinder Merkel.

“We’d be very happy about that,” said Sergei Markov, a political consultant to Putin’s staff. “The Social Democrats would stop the artificial Cold War.”

A tight race creates an opening for the Kremlin to use its leverage by rallying Russian speakers. Putin’s propagandists flexed their powers of agitation last year with outraged, full-spectrum reporting on the alleged gang rape of a 13-year-old Russian girl by a trio of immigrants in Berlin. The news turned out to be fake, but not before the media blitz orchestrated in Moscow helped lure tens of thousands of people onto German streets to rail against the chancellor.

Sochi Talks

Merkel said she’s not afraid of Russian election interference after meeting Putin Tuesday in Sochi, Russia. “I’m not a fearful person. I’m going ahead with my election campaign, based on what I believe in,” she said. The Russian leader said, “we would never even think of intervening in the political processes of other countries.”

Russian state media continue to promote the perception that immigrants are freeloaders taking advantage of Germany’s welfare state. The German division of RT, formerly known as Russia Today, often broadcasts live the anti-Islam protests of the fringe PEGIDA movement. Another Russian state-TV channel has run false stories, including that pork was being banned in some German areas to please Muslim refugees, which caused a backlash on social media.

While German authorities have said they’ve found no evidence of direct Russian interference in the elections, officials close to Merkel say privately they have no doubt that the Kremlin is behind a barrage of misleading reports meant to hurt her prospects. Russia denies that.

Konstantin Malofeev, a wealthy Putin ally who serves as a kind of unofficial envoy to AfD and other right-wing parties, said the chances of Merkel failing to win a fourth term are “very high.”

Russian Courtship

Russia’s courtship of AfD goes back to at least 2015, when the party’s deputy chief, Alexander Gauland, met with Malofeev and several lawmakers from Putin’s ruling United Russia party in St. Petersburg.

“The idea was to listen to Russian interests, Russian complaints about Western policy, to follow their thinking, to find out if there is a chance to improve relations,’’ Gauland said in a phone interview.

While the CDU hasn’t been as fast to embrace Russian speakers as a distinct electoral group, it, too, is producing campaign material in Russian.

“The CDU will once again put on a successful target-group campaign,” said Heinrich Zertik, the party’s point man for Russian-speakers.

Joerg Forbrig of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Berlin said it would be a “gross exaggeration” to view the Russian Germans as a fifth column. But, he said, they can be swayed by Russian “manipulation” and they’re filling the ranks of the AfD, which is taking votes from Merkel, as well as other mainstream parties.

Roger Beckamp, Schmidt’s political boss in Cologne, said immigration remains a key election issue and time is on AfD’s side. “The CDU took their votes for granted,” he said.

Schmidt’s outreach efforts include a What’s App group for Russian Germans and a dedicated page on Russia’s most popular social network, VK, which he frequently updates.

“If the party communicates with them in Russian, that’s important psychologically,” he said.

Schmidt’s network stretches to places like Detmold, which lies 200 kilometers northeast of Cologne. The city of 75,000 is home to the country’s only museum dedicated to Russian Germans, who make up about a tenth of the population.

One of them, Jacob Baidin, a CDU defector like Schmidt who owns a delivery business, said he doesn’t trust German newscasts and gets his information mainly from Russian TV, which “generally tells the truth.”

Baidan, 28, said Russian Germans were outraged that local authorities invited hundreds of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq to settle in low-income housing in their neighborhood. The newcomers brought “lots of rubbish and dirt,” he said.

Schmidt said he plans to continue campaigning and blogging all the way to election day and beyond. The programmer-turned-activist dismissed worries of Russian meddling, saying his only agenda is to return Germany to its roots.

“Something needs to change or at some point we’ll just have to flee this country,” Schmidt said.

— With assistance by Ilya Arkhipov, Arne Delfs, Samuel Dodge, and Patrick Donahue

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