As many as 90 women were attacked in Cologne on New Year's Eve.

Photographer: Maja Hitij/AFP/Getty Images

Germany's 'Russians' Are Wary of New Arrivals

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
Read More.
a | A

A wave of sexual assaults and robberies in Cologne on New Year's Eve, apparently committed by gangs of young men described as "Middle-Eastern" or "North African," has intensified tensions over the arrival of 1.1 million asylum seekers in Germany in 2015. Some of the alarm about the influx of new arrivals, mostly from predominantly Muslim lands, is being expressed by people who themselves are immigrants or children of immigrants.

In 2014, 20.3 percent of the German population had an immigration background "in the strict sense," according to Destatis, the official statistics agency. In other words, they either immigrated themselves or were still living with their immigrant parents. Although there is a perception that Turks and Poles account for the biggest immigrant groups in Germany, the plurality of those meeting this definition are Russian-speaking people from the former Soviet Union, mainly Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan:

Germany, Country of Immigration
Residents with an immigration background ("in the strict sense") by country or region of origin, 2014
 
Source: Destatis

Many of these 2.9 million immigrants, particularly the ones from Kazakhstan, are ethnic Germans who left just before or soon after the Soviet Union fell apart; many others are Jews invited in by the German government in the 1980s and 1990s. They have been followed by a wave of people unwilling to put up with Vladimir Putin's regime in Russia or attracted by Berlin's tech hub status. Yet, together they form a cohesive group with a common language (Russian) and culture (Soviet or post-Soviet). To their German neighbors, they all are "Russians." 

In Berlin, the "Russians" have their own radio station and other media, clubs, restaurants, grocery stores and bookshops, as well as authors and artists. In 2014, there were almost as many of them in the German capital as there were people from the Middle East and Africa combined: 113,000 compared with 121,000. My daughters attend a bilingual Russian-German school, which wouldn't be available almost anywhere else.

The "Russians" have done well as a dominant immigrant group. Although many fled abject poverty, they now have nice jobs in business, government and academia. They have much to lose, and some are scared by what they're seeing and reading about the recent refugees from the Middle East. They aren't shy about saying that Chancellor Angela Merkel made a mistake by letting in so many people without proper screening.

"It's stupid and dangerous to open the gate to anyone who wants in," says Julia Brinkmann, a "Russian" living in Berlin. "How do you integrate such a mass?"

There still are fewer Middle Easterners and Africans combined in Germany than there are "Russians." But only two of about two dozen first-generation "Russians" I spoke to mentioned that their own cohort also might be considered carriers of foreign values. Most seemed to view Muslims and Africans as different and possibly threatening.

Jevgeni Geller, a "Russian" who runs a conference business in Duesseldorf, suggested that the solution was to only let in women, children and men older than 40, even though that would make it almost impossible for the German economy to benefit in the medium term from an increase in the workforce. Geller said the new migrants didn't want to integrate in the same way as the "Russians" had. Even among Turks who have lived in Germany for decades, only 14 percent have obtained the Abitur -- a high school diploma necessary for university and most professional training. More than half of Ukrainian immigrants have that credential.

Many of the "Russians" said they were concerned about an increase in crime. "There are parts of Berlin where I don't go even in the daytime," says Yevgenia Nagel, who owns a real estate business in Berlin, listing areas near refugee shelters and tent cities. 

Nagel doesn't oppose accepting Syrian refugees. Two Syrian families have rented her Berlin apartments at the government's expense. She says her tenants are "educated and tactful people with wonderful children" who are eager to integrate and will almost certainly be useful to Germany. The trouble, she says, is that there was no screening when the asylum seekers were allowed to cross the German border, and "criminal elements took advantage of it." Germany would be better off, according to Nagel, if it had followed the example of the U.S. by selecting vetted refugees for resettlement.

That is a sentiment shared by many "Russians," who feel the government has mishandled the situation and may be unable to deal with unruly immigrants who refuse to recognize local rules. For many, the solution would be to deport any immigrant who commits a crime, however small. Yevgeny Kochergin, of Regensburg in Bavaria, suggested that citizenship should be granted only to the second or third generation of immigrants to keep the "black sheep" in line. 

Some "Russians" said that it was too late anyway and that Germany had been forever spoiled: It's time to move to Hungary or the Czech Republic, where governments are adamant about keeping out asylum seekers. And at least those countries didn't enforce what many saw as liberal German political correctness. "In Germany, people may get into a lot of trouble if they criticize refugees on Facebook," Geller said. "Activists will track him down and complain to his employer."

The fears and the perceived cultural divide with the newcomers are as prevalent among "Russians" as they are among native Germans who criticize Merkel's "open door policy." This convergence of views could be seen as evidence that immigrant groups eventually do integrate. To German authorities, it should be a hopeful sign: Perhaps the new arrivals, too, will eventually feel German enough to resent the next immigration wave.

Some of the "Russians" also took the long view.

"Germany is no longer the safe place that it used to be, but at the same times it's turning into a more interesting country in many respects," said Boris Banchevsky, who arrived 12 years ago from Moscow. "Immigration is definitely part of this process."

"Germany has already digested more than 2 million former Soviets, many times more than the number of Syrians," said Dasha Bulanova. "Not all of our former compatriots are paragons of virtue, but they are exceptions. It's good that we're not being judged on the basis of what they do."

One difference is that the new wave of immigration wasn't invited, unlike the preceding ones, including the Turks and "Russians." That makes them harder to accept for those who came legally. Yet Germany has probably dealt with enough immigrants to be able to assimilate this wave, too. "Everybody seems worse off -- these guys have arrived, they cost money, they misbehave, they're a strain on the infrastructure -- but they're still being accepted," said Alexei Kolupaev, a Berlin software developer.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net