PFORZHEIM, Germany (Reuters) - German political parties campaigning for elections next month are competing to attract 2 million voters with roots in the former Soviet Union, amid concerns that Russian propaganda could sway votes in the community.
The biggest push for votes has come from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), which has six Russian-German candidates on its party slate, and whose leaders have had two meetings with the community in recent weeks.
Including candidates for the Social Democrats, conservatives and other parties, a record number of Russian-German candidates are standing in the election on Sept. 24, after years of having just one representative there - Heinrich Zertik, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU).
Zertik is one of about 3 million Germans with roots in Russia and the former Soviet Union, whose ancestors moved there hundreds of years ago, but who faced persecution, torture and exile after two world wars.
Long invisible, the Russian-German population came under the spotlight in January 2016 when an estimated 10,000 of its members hit the streets to protest the alleged rape by migrants of a 13-year-old Russian-German girl.
German police quickly debunked the story as fake news, but the rapid mobilization of so many Russian-Germans through social media raised concerns that they were susceptible to influence operations from Russia.
Western intelligence officials say Moscow is using social media, the expansion of the RT and Sputnik media outlets, and satellite broadcasts to challenge sanctions imposed over Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.
Alexander Reiser, who moved to Germany from Russia in 1996 and runs a Russian-German support group in Berlin’s Marzahn neighborhood, said Russian trolls set up a fake account on a Russian social network after he challenged the fake rape report.
It took him nearly a year to get the Odnoklassniki network to remove the fake profile, which falsely portrayed him as gay.
He said negative stories about Merkel and the one million migrants who arrived in Germany over the past two years are rampant on Russian media, fuelling resentment among some Russian-Germans.
“The community’s biggest concern is the refugees,” he said. “The pictures come from Russian television and they say the country is ... being flooded, now these ‘barbarians’ are coming from the Middle East,” he said.
The AfD has parlayed similar messages into big gains in local elections in areas of Berlin, Pforzheim in southern Germany, and North-Rhine Westphalia with large Russian-German populations. Already present in 13 of 16 state legislatures, the AfD is poised to move into the federal parliament this year.
Achim Goerres, a professor at the University of Duisburg, detects a shift away from Merkel’s CDU by Russian-Germans and says their support for the AfD could reach 15 to 20 percent.
Richard Hilmer, who heads the Berlin think-tank Policy Matters, said Russian-Germans were unlikely to affect the outcome of the bigger parties nationally, but their votes could help smaller parties gain more seats.
“The Russian-German community ... could have a particularly big impact on the results of smaller parties like the AfD in some regions,” he said.
AfD co-leader Joerg Meuthen drew enthusiastic applause during a meeting with about 50 Russian-Germans near Pforzheim two weeks ago when he warned about the creeping “Islamisation” of Germany and derided Merkel’s “romp in the left swamp.”
“Back then, there were no people clapping and handing out presents at the train stations,” he said, referring to the Russian-Germans’ arrival decades ago.
Waldemar Birkle, a Russian-German AfD candidate, said the arrival of so many migrants made him feel like a minority in his own country.
“We came home to the country of our ancestors for one single reason - to preserve our identity and our culture, so we could remain German,” he said. “We’re not racist, but if we’re honest with ourselves, when we go through the city in Pforzheim, there are barely any Germans left.”
Many of his neighbors share his view. In Birkle’s district of Buckenberg-Haidach, the AfD won 54.2 percent of the vote, nearly double the rate of the city as a whole.
Merkel, keen to rebuild support among Russian-Germans, met leaders of Russian-German groups in May and the party has promised to increase pensions, still less than those of other Germans.
Dmitri Stratievski, who heads a group of about 80 Russian-speaking members in Berlin’s SPD, said his party was also increasing outreach after failing to connect with Russian-Germans for years.
The SPD has two Russian-German candidates running for parliament, plus another woman with Chechen roots, he said.
He also said estimates of the AfD’s influence in the community were overblown, and the party had suffered setbacks in several Berlin districts with large Russian-German populations. “The AfD is trying to play up reports of its support, but no one has proven it,” he said.
Petra Pau, a Left party member of the German parliament who has held campaign events in Russian in her working-class district of Marzahn-Hellersdorf in Berlin for 15 years, said the AfD was clearly trying to capitalize on legitimate concerns.
“A lot of mistakes were made,” she said. “I mean it’s hard to fathom. The woman who cleans my office in the Bundestag was a university professor back home.”
Many Russian-Germans say they are on guard after the fake rape story, and the community may be more resilient and diverse than many imagine.
“It’s true that Russia has been carrying out an aggressive media campaign since 2008. And the AfD is actively pursuing Russian-Germans, but it’s nonsense to think that they will all fall for this stuff,” said Felix Riefer of the progressive Lev Kopelev Forum in Cologne
Kornelius Ens, director of the Museum for Russian-German Cultural History in the northern town of Detmold, says many church-based Russian-German groups had initiated projects to help newer migrants.
Those who joined churches and community groups were generally better integrated and “noticeably less susceptible to Russian news and propaganda,” he said.
Medina Schaubert, a CDU member and leader in Reiser’s community group, says Russian-Germans should not treat others as they were treated.
“It was the exact same right-wing mentality that shut us out when we came,” says Schaubert, who remembers being taunted as a “Russian bimbo” after her arrival as a young girl, and once had a teacher come to class sporting a Hitler-style moustache.
“My early school experiences were catastrophic,” she said. “It’s terrible what happened to us, but those who are arriving now had nothing to do with it.”
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; editing by Giles Elgood