Information operations · Information Warfare · Russia

Merkel loses backing of Germany’s 2m Russian voters

Russian-Germans are turning against Angela Merkel as they read stories of immigrant crime and false reports planted by pro-Putin trolls YURI KOCHETKOV/EPA
Born and raised in the former Soviet Union, many Russian-Germans rely on news sources in their former home country, which includes a steady stream of reports of immigrant crime in Germany and fake news planted on social media by Kremlin trolls.
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The Times

The Kremlin’s claim to Crimea has become part of the German election campaign in the battle for the votes of two million Russian-Germans who are turning away from Angela Merkel towards populists likely to enter parliament for the first time.

Born and raised in the former Soviet Union, many Russian-Germans rely on news sources in their former home country, which includes a steady stream of reports of immigrant crime in Germany and fake news planted on social media by Kremlin trolls.

In a crammed conference hall in western Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party made its pitch to one of the largest Russian-German communities: not with lower taxes or more jobs but with calls to end sanctions on Moscow.

The “returnees” from former Soviet republics make up one of the largest ethnic voting groups in Germany. Unlike Turkish-Germans who favour the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Russians were staunch supporters of Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). This was in gratitude to Helmut Kohl, the chancellor who legislated for the return of hundreds of thousands to the land of their ancestors after the Iron Curtain fell in the 1990s.

These old loyalties are now being tested. The CDU’s embrace of a million Muslim migrants as well as gay marriage have upset many in the ultra-conservative Russian community. Anxieties have been fuelled by the Russian media’s intense coverage of immigrant crime in Germany.

“Crimea for Russia is like Germany losing Aachen or Cologne, we must understand how it feels,” Alexander Gauland, the AfD’s foreign policy spokesman and co-candidate for chancellor, said to applause from his 1,200-strong audience in Pforzheim, a city of 120,000 near the French border.

“We do not want the sanctions — they harm us, they damage Russia and they will not bring Crimea back to Ukraine,” he said, adding that Crimea became Russian in 1783 under “the German Tsarina” Catherine the Great.

Pforzheim’s several thousand Russian-German voters could prove decisive here in the election on September 24. In the Baden-Württemberg state election last year the AfD defeated the CDU, winning 24.2 per cent against its 22.4 per cent, a fall of almost 20 points for Mrs Merkel’s party.

The AfD senses that the two million Russian-German votes are theirs for the taking. Germany’s newest political party, formed in 2013, has regularly appealed to traditions to build its nationalist support base, saying it is the natural home of disgruntled CDU voters.

At Mix Markt, a Russian supermarket in the Haidach district of Pforzheim, Irina, 77, explained why she was likely to vote for the AfD.

“I always voted for the CDU but I’m against Merkel now. All these migrants,” she said. “I don’t like Muslims.”

Irina came to Germany from Kazakhstan in 1990. Now she and thousands like her are backing the country’s only anti-immigrant party.

“In my opinion, the AfD has something to offer Russian-Germans; it is closer to Russia. You have to talk to Russia and Putin. And with Trump in America, too. War is the worst. I know war.”

Anti-migrant feeling erupted early last year over the “Lisa case” when a 13-year-old Russian-German girl was reported by First Russian TV to have been kidnapped and raped by three Arab-looking men.

Demonstrations of 10,000 Russian-Germans were organised on social media and covered widely by the Russian media. The resulting outcry was so huge that Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, deplored the lack of German police action.

It took a few days for investigators to discover that the girl went missing for the night because she stayed with a friend and had been neither kidnapped nor raped. The incident stoked deep suspicions, however, and highlighted the power of Russian media among the Russian-German community.

Alexander Reiser, who moved to Germany from Russia in 1996 and runs a support group for citizens like him in Berlin, said that Russian trolls set up a fake account about him on Odnoklassniki, a social network for connecting old friends, after he challenged the fake rape report. The account falsely portrayed him as gay and took him nearly a year to remove, he said.

Mr Reiser said negative stories about Mrs Merkel and the recent migrants were rampant on Russian media. “The community’s biggest concern is the refugees,” he said.

The Russian-German switch of allegiance will probably not affect Mrs Merkel’s chances of winning the election but could have a big impact on the fierce battle for third place behind the CDU and SPD. The AfD is consistently polling at between 8 and 10 per cent and is engaged in a tussle with The Left party, formed by former Communists, and the pro-business liberals, the Free Democrats. The prize at stake could be highly significant, if the SPD goes back into coalition with the CDU: the right to be known as the opposition party.