Are Russian Germans the backbone of the populist AfD?

Germany's far-right populist AfD consistently performs well in the country's Russian-speaking communities, and one of the reasons could be Russian propaganda. However, experts say the real picture is much more nuanced.

Surveys show that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party performs notably better in areas that are densely populated by Russian-born Germans. This is no small advantage — there are currently 3,166,000 migrants from ex-Soviet states living in Germany, or some 3.8% of the country's population.

The majority of them are so-called ethnic Germans who moved to Germany from Eastern Europe in the decades following World War II. This group, some 2.5 million people, were given German passports. However, there are also some 220,000 people who became German residents in a special program to take in Jewish migrants from the former USSR. There are also a significant number of students coming from the post-Soviet region, as well Russian-speaking spouses of German residents. And, there are a growing number of Russian professionals working at German companies.

Read more: 'We are not the AFD,' say ethnic Germans from Russia

AfD's small triumphs

The populist AfD entered Germany's federal parliament for the first time in 2017. Nationwide, it won 12.6% support, making it the third-biggest party in Germany.

The results of the 2017 elections, however, also show the AfD nearly doubling their level of support in certain areas populated by Russian-speaking Germans.

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For example, while the AfD received some 19.3% of the vote in the southwestern city of Pforzheim, it snatched 36.9% in the city's district of Buckenberg, where nearly 45% of the population is made up of Russian Germans. In Bavaria's Augsburg, the AfD gained 13.8% support, but the two city quarters with a large Russo-German population again saw it perform much better: 24.2% in one, and 22.2% in the other. Similar results were reported in Bielefeld, Koblenz, Duisburg and other German cities with distinct Russian-speaking communities.

'Kremlin propaganda is not primitive'

There was also a notable political shift among Russian-speaking Germans between 2014 and 2016, according to Germany's official statistics office. During this time, Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russian rebels went to war in Ukraine's East, while millions of migrants triggered a crisis in Europe. Support for the AfD and far-right extremists, who urge tight migration control and removing the sanctions on Russia has gone up. In turn, backing for Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives has gone down.

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Germany's anti-migrant AFD party is relatively popular among German voters with Russian background. Senior members of the party, including then-leader Frauke Petry, meet Putin's ruling party lawmakers in Moscow in 2017. The AFD also believes the EU sanctions are a "farce." However, party co-leader Alexander Gauland denies that the party supports Putin and "his authoritarian regime."

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Germany-based Russian sociologist Igor Eidman says the main reason for it is Russian television, which is still watched by Germans born in the former USSR.

"The Kremlin propaganda is not primitive, it does not urge the audience to vote for the AfD, but it sends off the same messages as the AfD and the far-right, consciously stirring up xenophobic, neoconservative, clerical, homophobic, anti-liberal attitudes," Eidman said at a Berlin conference organized by the Center for East European and International Studies in April 2019. These messages, according to the sociologist, shape a worldview that resonates best with right-wing populism.

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Eidman is one of the figures behind an upcoming documentary about Russian Germans and the effects of Russian propaganda. Parts of the film were shot in the Berlin district of Marzahn, which features a community of some 30,000 Russian-speaking Germans.

The filmmakers have interviewed at least 100 people, Eidman said, and between 75% and 80% of them "practically completely rebroadcast this image of the world given to them by Russian television."

Russian-speakers' bubble

However, experts warn against generalizing the entire Russian-speaking German population based on these insights. While the exact numbers are unclear, experts believe only a minority of them live together in densely populated areas such as Berlin's Marzahn or Pforzheim's Buckenberg.

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Osnabruck historian Jannis Panagiotidis says there is another reason these results should be taken with a grain of salt. Russian-speaking communities, which some have referred to as "Russian ghettos," form "social bubbles" that attract a certain type of people and impose specific conditions.

In these bubbles, there is a strong feeling of being part of a close crowd, being exposed to the same influences and burdened by the same stereotypes. Surveying Russian-born Germans who are better integrated and more dispersed could provide quite different results, according to Panagiotidis.

GDR vs. USSR

This discrepancy was confirmed by researchers from Duisburg-Essen University in their Immigrant German Election Study (IMGES).

Their results show that post-Soviet migrants as a whole gave the AfD 15% support at the 2017 polls, which is more than their national average (12.6%) but nowhere near the extreme values noted in some Russian-speaking communities. In fact, Russian-born Germans were far more critical of the AfD than the overall population of the former East Germany, or GDR. In the ex-GDR states, the AfD managed to gather over 22% of the vote.

The IMGES study also reveals that Russian-speaking Germans are far more prone to vote for the Left Party (21%) compared to 9.2% on the national level and 17.4% in the now defunct GDR.