Philip Olterman, Rina Soloveitchik — The Guardian Sept 22, 2017
They are the “invisible” ethnic minority that could help the rightwing populist Alternative für Deutschland become the third biggest party at Germany’s federal elections this weekend, yet has been largely ignored by the country’s biggest political parties.
An estimated 1.4 million to 4 million native Russian-speakers live in Germany, many of them descendants of 19th-century German emigres who returned and were granted citizenship after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
With Moscow and German far-right parties actively courting this diaspora community, a new initiative now aims to re-engage voters who have become disillusioned with western democracy.
Since March, the state-backed Federal Association of Russian-speaking Parents (BVRE), has been organising panel discussions with politicians from all major parties – naturally in Russian.
“The point of the discussions is to make people feel included in the established political system and thereby bring them back into it,” said Victor Ostrovsky, one of the main founders and board members of the BVRE.
Ostrovsy, a father of two, came to Germany from St Petersburg in the early 1990s, shortly after the breakdown of the Soviet Union. “We can’t change the minds of those who already made their minds up. We are fighting for those who are still undecided,” he added.
Germany’s “Russian-Germans” – a term often used so loosely as to include those with a variety of backgrounds from Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan as well as Russia – were initially eyed sceptically but eventually came to be considered model immigrants, fluent in the native tongue and less likely to be unemployed than those in other immigrant communities. One 2013 report merely bemoaned Russian-Germans’ lack of interest in politics.
The 2015 refugee crisis and an ensuing fraught debate about the benefits of immigration, however, has politicised large parts of the community. Many, like Berlin nurse Olga Vitlif, became involved with the AfD, which is on course to become the third-biggest force in the Bundestag thanks to a surge in the last stretch of the election campaign.
“I can understand why these people wanted to come to Germany,” Vitlif said of the 2015 arrivals. “But I don’t feel any solidarity with people who come here illegally.” Rather than being driven by a fear of other ethnicities, she claimed that Russian-Germans were in a better position to assess the challenges of integration than most native Germans. “We have seen first-hand how politically unstable a country with different ethnicities can become.”
The AfD is the only party which has gone out of its way to court the vote of native Russian speakers in Germany. As early as last autumn, it handed out Russian-language flyers ahead of local elections in Berlin and in August a leading figure of its nationalist wing organised a “Russia conference” in Magdeburg, at which speakers warned of a coming “Islamic invasion” and praised Vladimir Putin.
One recent survey, by a foundation set up in the name of the late Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, found that the majority of Germany’s Russian-speaking minority had more trust in Russian sources than German media, even if they were fluent in both languages.
While the majority of those polled said they valued German democracy higher than Russian democracy, approval rates were considerably lower among younger than older respondents.
Ostrovsky and his colleagues decided to push for their initiative in reaction to the so-called “Lisa case”. In January 2016 Russian media had reported that a girl named “Lisa” had been raped by refugees in Berlin.
German police debunked the allegations as false, yet thousands of Russian speakers from the all over Germany took to the streets to protest Merkel’s immigration policy nonetheless. “We saw the scope of the problem and we wanted to address it,” Ostrovsky said.
But a recent event in Marzahn, the same district of Berlin where the Lisa case began, also served to illustrate the scope of the political challenge ahead.
Inside a community centre surrounded by grey apartment blocks, Russian-speaking politicians from Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the Social Democratic party, the Greens, the Left party, and the AfD faced questions from an audience that included Timofej Weigel, a member of the AfD’s Lichtenberg branch who had testified as “Lisa’s uncle” in Russian television reports back in January 2016.
“How many terrorist have already entered, do you think?”, Weigel asked Medina Schaubert, who is standing in Marzahn for Merkel’s CDU. “And why are we called populist when we raise this issue, and you are said to care about security?”
Schaubert responded by saying that the situation had been extreme during the first influx of refugees, but “tried and tested structures” had now been put into place to fix the problem. “Not every refugee is a terrorist”, she added.
Oleg Musyka, a former pro-Russian rightwing activist from eastern Ukraine who received political asylum in Germany asked a question about the alleged “engineering” of the Ukrainian revolution by the west, asked: “Should Germany not stay out of the domestic politics of other countries to avoid refugees?”.
Medina Schaubert tried to respond by arguing that countries “don’t just get involved for no reason” but was soon interrupted by shouts from the audience: “Under Gaddafi, there was communism at least, and what is there now? At least he provided stability!”
The only speaker who managed to hold forth without heckles from the audience during the event was Sergei Chernov, a member of the AfD’s recently founded Russian-speaking group, who argued that the German economy had suffered long enough from sanctions against Russia. “Our party is against the sanctions. They are useless, as we can see in Ukraine,” he said. His comments were received with the only applause of the night.