German politics - Russia's next target?

Merkel has vowed to defend liberal order and win a fourth term as chancellor but officials fear Moscow's intervention in the election campaign, with hard-right parties well placed to benefit

Lisa was a Russian-born teenager living in Berlin who last January said she had been abducted and raped by three men she alleged were immigrants, noting they were "southerners" who spoke poor German.

As the story spread on social media, Russian media outlets pounced on it, widely reporting the 13-year-old girl had been held as "a sex slave".

Before the police could complete their investigation, Mr Sergei Lavrov, Russia's Foreign Minister, accused the German authorities of "sweeping problems under the rug". Berlin responded by warning Moscow not to exploit the case "for political propaganda".

A few days later, prosecutors concluded the girl had not been abducted or raped, but had gone to a friend's home to hide from her parents after getting into trouble at school. Despite the prosecutors' findings, Russian media issued dire warnings about sex crimes committed by immigrants, prompting an outcry in Germany's ethnic Russian community.

Protests were staged across the country, including a demonstration by 700 people outside Dr Angela Merkel's chancellery.

For Germans bracing themselves for Russian interference in this year's federal election, the "Lisa case" offers a precedent for how it might unfold.

The case erupted during election campaigns in three regions, when emotions were running high about the flow of one million refugees into Germany and support was surging for the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Now Berlin fears that Moscow could be planning another intervention ahead of September's Bundestag poll with the aim of undermining Dr Merkel. The Chancellor has warned that Russian Internet-based misinformation could "play a role in the campaign".


Protesters at a rally against a meeting of the main leaders of Europe's populist and far-right parties in Koblenz, Germany, on Jan 21. Berlin fears that Moscow could be planning an intervention ahead of September's Bundestag poll with the aim of undermining Dr Angela Merkel. The Chancellor herself has warned that Russian Internet-based misinformation could "play a role in the campaign". PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Mr Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the domestic BfV intelligence agency, has put it more bluntly.

The Kremlin, he says, is seeking "to influence public opinion and decision-making processes" because "we have a parliamentary election this year".

Berlin's concerns are heightened by US intelligence agencies' claims that Moscow interfered in the US Presidential Election through hacking into Democratic party computers and releasing information aimed at damaging Mrs Hillary Clinton to the benefit of Mr Donald Trump.

BATTLE FOR LIBERAL VALUES

The stakes in September's German election could not be higher.

Since World War II, Russian-German relations have been free of violent conflict but political interference has been frequent. In the cold war, the divided Germany was home to the world's busiest spies. Later, Germany followed the US in spreading liberal democracy in the former Soviet empire, with the ultimate aim of binding Russia into the Western world order.

Dr Merkel is running for a fourth term in the face of widespread criticism of her refugee policy.

The once seemingly invulnerable Chancellor is battling disenchantment among her conservative voters and the rise of the AfD, the first hard-right party since World War II with realistic prospects of entering the Bundestag.

Her supporters, led by former US President Barack Obama, see Dr Merkel as a liberal beacon in a world of rising nationalism highlighted by Mr Trump's victory, Britain's Brexit vote and surging support for French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

An electoral defeat for Dr Merkel - or even a serious setback - would be a huge victory for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He is keen to break Western unity on the sanctions imposed over Russia's aggression in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea - unity largely orchestrated and upheld by Dr Merkel.

In the longer term, he wants to divide the European Union, split Nato and push back an alliance that has extended its reach deep into territory once controlled by Moscow. "Weakening the unity of the West benefits Putin the most," says Mr Norbert Rottgen, head of the Bundestag's foreign affairs committee.

Moreover, Dr Merkel is seen in Moscow as the pre-eminent representative of a liberal order that Mr Putin has long feared might undermine his authoritarian grip on Russia. If she can be humbled, her values could also be tarnished.

EU diplomats say the Kremlin is still unsure of what to make of the unpredictable Mr Trump, whose latest move to ban refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim countries has caused a worldwide storm. But his criticisms of the EU, Nato and free trade have made it easier for Moscow to portray the German Chancellor - who yesterday led the condemnation of the US refugee move - as isolated.

Mr Sergei Karaganov, a foreign policy specialist close to the Kremlin, wrote last month that the world was witnessing the end of EU-style liberal politics. "The old world order is destroyed. We must start building a new one."

Since World War II, Russian-German relations have been free of violent conflict but political interference has been frequent. In the cold war, the divided Germany was home to the world's busiest spies. Later, Germany followed the US in spreading liberal democracy in the former Soviet empire, with the ultimate aim of binding Russia into the Western world order.

Under Mr Putin's recent strategy, the Kremlin is striking back.

Berlin security officials fear that, following Moscow's apparent success in disrupting the US elections, the German poll could be a tempting target.

CHANGE OF INFLUENCE

Russia has widespread influence in Germany, based on close economic, political and personal ties. It is Germany's largest energy supplier, with Gazprom, the state-controlled gas group, developing big projects in the country and sponsoring Schalke, the football team.

German leaders, especially the centre-left Social Democrats, who are junior partners in Dr Merkel's coalition, spent decades encouraging reconciliation with Moscow. Official figures show that since the fall of the Berlin Wall, some three million Russian-speaking immigrants have arrived from the former Soviet Union, including about two million so-called Russian-Germans - descendants of German settlers who moved to Russia centuries ago.

Berlin and Moscow formalised these links with a plethora of organisations, headed by the German-Russian Forum, financed mostly by German business, and the Petersburg Dialogue, funded mainly by the German Foreign Ministry.

While post-Soviet Russia was weak, these institutions were mostly seen as a way of transferring Western values east. But now, their critics view them as channels of Russian influence into Germany.

"Under Putin, these networks have taken on a different, more nefarious goal: to alter the rules of bilateral relations, influence German policy towards eastern Europe and Russia and impact EU decisions through influence networks in Berlin," writes Dr Stefan Meister, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, in a report published by the Atlantic Council last year.

With the German political world increasingly critical of Mr Putin over his authoritarian rule, the Ukraine crisis and Russia's bloody involvement in Syria, elite opinion has grown wary of Moscow's charms. However, the Internet has created new possibilities for Russia - and other foreign powers - to reach the general population.

The Kremlin uses broadcasting, online news sites, social networks and chat rooms to reach foreign audiences, including in Germany.

It has launched a German-language service for Russia Today, its main foreign television channel.

Even more important for communicating to Russian speakers are the domestic Russian television stations accessible worldwide via the Web.

Dr Meister says the output amounts to "propaganda" because it includes information deliberately designed to confuse and misinform the audience. The Lisa case is a good example, he adds, but there are others - in particular Russian reports about the MH17 aircraft that crashed over Ukraine in July 2014. While Western officials say it was shot down by a Russian missile fired by pro-Russia rebels, Russian media have - without offering much evidence - often blamed Ukrainian forces.

Professor Alexander Rahr, the research director of the German-Russian Forum who is seen as sympathetic to Moscow, argues that condemning Russian state-backed media as wholesale propaganda is "primitive". He says: "There is propaganda but there are also serious documentaries. And what is so different about German television, which is seen as propaganda in many countries?"

Immigrants from the former Soviet bloc are far from being a monolithic social group, having often integrated well into German life. Older people mostly stay loyal to Dr Merkel's conservative Christian Democrat/Christian Socialist bloc partly out of gratitude to the conservative former chancellor Helmut Kohl, who helped end the cold war.

But younger immigrants often admire Mr Putin, crediting him with restoring respect for Russia.

There is also an audience for pro-Russia media in the wider German population, particularly in former communist eastern Germany, where many people remain nostalgic about communist rule. "Attitudes to Russia are more positive in the east," says a German government official. "It is one of the lasting signs of a divided Germany."

The Left party, which was formed from the former East German Communist party, and is Russia-friendly and anti-Nato, scores around 5 per cent in opinion polls in western Germany and more than 15 per cent in the east.

German officials are especially concerned about the hacking of government networks for political ends - including a 2015 attack on the Bundestag when huge amounts of data were removed. The BfV intelligence agency blames this raid on a cyber group known as APT 28 that is thought to be managed by the Russian secret services.

The BfV is concerned about the precedent of the US, where data taken from the Democratic National Committee damaged Mrs Clinton's campaign. "Fear of the potential consequences of the cyber attack affects everybody in the Bundestag," says Mr Joachim Poss, a Social Democrat parliamentarian.

The Kremlin has repeatedly denied that it played any role in US political hacking or the Bundestag attack and dismissed suggestions that it interferes in other countries' elections. German security officials concede that they cannot prove that the Kremlin was ultimately behind the Bundestag hack.

Berlin is hardening its defences against cyber threats ranging from data theft to the possible sabotage of government institutions and power plants. The Defence Ministry has stepped up its electronic warfare capabilities with a 13,500-strong cyber unit due to be operational by the middle of this year.

There is widespread debate about how Russian interference could influence the election result. Some analysts say the Lisa case will help the AfD win votes, particularly among Russian speakers. Dr Sergey Lagodinsky, a researcher at the Berlin-based Heinrich Boll Institute, says: "This has had its effect and people have not changed their minds. Many people from eastern Europe have difficulties in accepting a multicultural liberal society."

Others argue that the impact of the case has been exaggerated. Mr Gernot Erler, the government's special envoy for Russia, says it actually backfired for the Kremlin because it was so blatant.

"It embarrassed those involved. People saw that it was complete manipulation."

AFD THREAT

That may not stop Moscow trying again. The key to hurting Dr Merkel in the polls lies in boosting AfD support. Certainly, the Chancellor faces other opponents - including the Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left party. But they broadly backed her refugee policies while the AfD led the charge against them. It is also EU-sceptic and Russia-friendly, and advocates lifting Ukraine-linked sanctions.

"Russian interference in German politics starts with support for the AfD," says Dr Meister.

The AfD has seen its support soar from 4.7 per cent in the last Bundestag election in 2013 to 12 to 15 per cent in recent opinion polls.

That is well behind Dr Merkel's Christian Democratic Union/ Christian Social Union bloc, which has around 32 to 35 per cent, but it puts it within sight of the second-placed Social Democrats on about 21 per cent.

It is crucial for the AfD's chances to keep the controversy over immigration and fear of Islamist terror in the headlines. This is fertile ground for Russian media companies, which routinely highlight attacks, such as the deadly one on the Berlin Christmas market.

"Online media directed by Russia is spreading misinterpretation and misinformation," says Mr Christian Lindner, head of the liberal Free Democrats. "In this way, our country is to be destabilised and the AfD made stronger."

Dr Merkel's Germany is a difficult land to destabilise. With the economy strong, unemployment minimal and crime low, the Chancellor's chances of losing the Bundestag poll are considered to be small. But so were Mr Trump's chances of winning the White House. No one knows whether the Kremlin tipped the balance there, or what it might attempt in Germany.

But the Lisa case is not expected to be its last try.

FINANCIAL TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 03, 2017, with the headline 'German politics - Russia's next target?'. Print Edition | Subscribe