BERLIN—As the federal elections approach, many in Germany wonder what surprises Moscow is preparing for Mutti, or Mommy, as many of Germans call Chancellor Angela Merkel, whether with affection or with irony. Liberals around the globe see the 63-year-old German leader as one of the world’s best hopes at a moment of faltering U.S. leadership. And for precisely that reason, as German officials in the Bundestag told The Daily Beast, they are expecting some “Russian surprises” in the last few days before election day on Sept. 24.
One of the Bundestag’s leading experts on foreign affairs, Niels Annen, said Berlin has been watching Russia’s efforts to shake up, discredit, and mock German institutions and European values for at least the past three years.
“Russian hackers attacked us at the Bundestag in 2015 but no data stolen from Merkel and other officials has been released, so far,” Annen told The Daily Beast. “And although we have heard Russian Foreign Minister [Sergei] Lavrov, Russian President [Vladimir] Putin and PM [Dmitry] Medvedev saying that the Kremlin had no intentions to intervene in our elections, I am not so naïve as to believe that it means anything; we try to prepare ourselves for any development.”
Moscow’s attempts to inflame and exploit the emotions of some 4 million Russian-speaking German citizens have been obvious.
Victor Bashkatov, a 35-year-old politician, was astonished to see a crowd of far-right and Russian-German citizens protesting outside his office in the Bundestag last year. Hundreds of people came out on that chilly gray day with banners in Russian and German, furious about immigrants allegedly kidnapping and raping a 13-year-old girl—protesters demanded an investigation into the crime against “our Russian girl.”
The older generation of German citizens from former Soviet countries tend to watch Kremlin-controlled TV channels, and the story about “Lisa,” the little girl, eventually turned out to be fake. She had run away from home, stayed with an older male friend, and made up the story. But it inspired many of the Russian-speaking Germans to support the far-right populist party, Alternative for Germany, or AfD, which often is compared to France’s xenophobic National Front or Geert Wilders’ anti-Muslim movement in the Netherlands.
Hundreds of Russian-speaking German citizens—immigrants from former Soviet states and strong critics of European democracy—have joined the AfD in the past three years, including several Russian employees working at the AfD’s Berlin headquarters.
German officials are still astonished to see that Moscow’s officials, including Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, have never apologized for mobilizing the campaign in Berlin based on a patently false rape story.
Meanwhile, many young, educated Russians who have integrated into German society, prefer to distance themselves from anti-immigrant hysteria.
Ten years ago Bashkatov, a lawyer and graduate of Russia’s best university, Moscow State, moved to Berlin, abandoned his Russian citizenship and became German. He now works at the Bundestag with Merkel’s party.
“I do not want to have anything to do with these people who believe fake news,” said Bashkatov. “If they do not like life in Germany, they should go back to Russia.”
Last Tuesday, Andrey Gurkov, moderator of the Russian-language talk show Quadriga at Berlin’s Deutsche Welle studio, looked through letters on his desk from dozens of Russian-speaking residents of Germany.
“People write to us: ‘We are not AfD, we are not Putin’s fifth column, we are independent individuals, just like the rest of the German population,’” Gurkov said, reading one of the letters. But the trends are apparent. “Last year Germany could see how Moscow succeeded at mobilizing rallies, as big as we had previously seen organized by Kurdish and Turkish communities, then AfD grew bigger,” said.
In his book Putin’s Hidden War, the political observer Boris Reitschuster describes a network of Kremlin-backed activists operating in Germany. “It looks like somebody in Moscow pushed a button and activated ‘sleeping soldiers’ in accordance with some old KGB textbook,” Reitschuster told The Daily Beast.
Of Reitschuster’s particular concern are dozens of sport clubs, called Systema, which teach “Systema Spetsnaz,” martial arts techniques that originated with the Russian military’s Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). Many enthusiasts are attracted, Reitschuster told Deutsche Welle last year, then some are selected for further training inside Russia, where they may be recruited as agents to return to Germany. Citing documents from a European (not German) intelligence service, Reitschuster said there are some 250 to 300 such agents in Germany.
Last week three Systema clubs were giving martial arts lessons on the outskirts of Berlin. It costs just €10 ($12) to enroll. One of the coaches, Alexander Andreychenkov, teaches what is called Systema Ryabko, broadly practiced in the past by both KGB and GRU special units for decades, but employees at the clubs refused to give interviews to The Daily Beast.
Meanwhile, as Reitschuster told The Daily Beast, “Russian bots have been writing comments on social media; Russian propaganda describes Germany as an American puppet; and old Stasi agents are serving Moscow again.”
As the elections approach, Chancellor Merkel’s comforting smile beams from billboards on the streets of Berlin, seeming to say, “Cheer up, I am going to win and be your leader for four more years, no matter what happens.”
But when Merkel talked on the phone to Putin last week, it’s doubtful she was smiling.
“Putin demanded that the U.S. stop war games in South Korea and Merkel told Putin to stop massive war games in Belarus. According to Karl-Georg Wellman, a chairman of the parliamentary group dealing with German-Russian and German-Ukrainian affairs, she said: “You scare us.” But Wellman points out “the two are talking and there is a high possibility they will have to talk and try to restore their partnership in the coming years.”
At the Free University of Berlin, Professor Martin Emmer monitors the Kremlin-sponsored Sputnik and Russia Today media. Recently he noticed on Russia Today’s German language website “a story about a report dating back to the 1950s, speculating that the CIA claimed that Hitler survived World War II—this is an example of the anti-American news, and in the usual pattern, with RT mocking CIA idiots.”
“If you read closely, there are no wrong facts, but the pattern demonstrates that there is a strategy to mobilize people,” Emmer said.
The anti-American rhetoric targets both German- and Russian-speaking audiences, turning the future relations between Russia and Germany into one of the key issues in elections.
Merkel is considered certain to win, with the Social Democratic Party’s Martin Schulz placing second, but the AfD may have gained enough ground to place third, with 11 percent of the vote, according to one of the latest polls, putting it ahead of the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats.
Using a now familiar strategy, AfD leaders have been blasting the mainstream media and appealing to offended, upset, dissatisfied fellow countrymen, promising their electorate a better future without immigrants (or at least non-white immigratns) and with Russia as a strong partner.
The leader of the Berlin faction, Georg M. Pazderski, told The Daily Beast on his most recent campaigning trip in Meissen that the AfD’s supporters asked about security issues in Europe, with the U.S. portrayed as the aggressor. “I told people that we are against the E.U. sanctions against Russia,” he said, adding, “We have decided at our council to withdraw American nuclear weapons from Germany.”
(Far-right politicians are not the only ones who talk about re-shuffling the security system in Europe. Schulz said last month that he wanted all U.S. nuclear warheads out of Germany, too.)
AfD leaders have cooperated with the Kremlin’s youth movements. Marcus Fronhnmayer, the leader of AfD’s youth wing, which counts about 2,000 members, told The Daily Beast about his participation in an economic forum there. Russian Deputy Minister of Economic Development Sergei Nazarov organized the event in Crimea, after the annexation.
“We also had several meetings with the leader of the United Youth Front Nikolai Shliamin and leaders of the Young Guard of United Russia in Moscow,” Fronhnmayer told The Daily Beast last week. “We are the bridge between AfD and Moscow, between political movements in France, Slovenia, Austria, and other countries, where they defend family values, where politicians want to cancel sanctions against Russia.”
This is the first time since the Nazi regime fell in 1945 that Germany has a chance to elect a far-right party to Parliament.
“Conservative parties in Slovakia, Hungary, Germany, and other European countries are rising, naturally, as a result of the immigration crises,” Pazderski told The Daily Beast. AfD officials denied receiving any funding from Russia.
After the collapse of the the German Democratic Republic (communist East Germany) and the fall of the Berlin Wall in November of 1989, Germany had many years of good relations and a strong partnership with Russia.
“Nobody in Germany is a Russophobe. The majority of Germans like Russian literature, music, want to see Siberia stay Russian and not Chinese—we want to see a prosperous, modernized Russia,” says Karl-Georg Wellman. “But most Germans disapprove of Putin’s politics, of the Kremlin’s hybrid wars, that are aimed to undermine our democracy—in vain. Nothing can spoil Merkel’s reputation.”
The MP said he hoped that after the Kremlin-backed far-right Marine Le Pen lost the French presidential election in May, Moscow would not want to waste millions of dollars but become serious about making peace with Europe.