While fighting for a seat in the German parliament over the last few months, Sergej Tschernow, a candidate for the right-wing Alternative for Germany, or AfD, knew that he could only rely on a few media outlets to give his party the coverage it craves: the Russian ones.
“They show our points of view in full,” he told TIME on Election Day, Sunday Sept. 24, when the AfD became the first far-right movement to enter into the German legislature since the end of World War II, winning a remarkable 13% of the vote and going from zero to more than 90 seats in a chamber of 631 lawmakers.
The party’s rise has been caused by a range of factors, not least the widespread frustrations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose political party, the Christian Democratic Union, had one of the worst showings in its history on Sunday. It won only 33% of the vote – most likely enough to secure Merkel a fourth term in office, but hardly the commanding lead the CDU anticipated.
With its nativist stance against immigration and its attacks against the European Union, the AfD has managed to siphon a lot of votes away from Merkel by harnessing the anti-establishment sentiment that has swept through Western democracies in recent years. But one uniquely German reason for the party’s success has been the broad support it enjoys among the Russian emigrant community — bolstered by the noisy partisan reporting of Kremlin-backed broadcasters, whose reports on the elections reached millions of German voters through satellite dishes, on cable and online.
Who really votes for AfD
The AfD has estimated that about a third of its support comes from Russian-speaking voters, several million of whom have settled in Germany since the 1980s; they now make up as much as 5% of the population. On Sunday night, one of the leaders of the AfD, a vocally anti-immigrant and nationalist party, appeared to concede – somewhat paradoxically – that its core constituents are themselves immigrants.
“Take a look at who really votes for the AfD, and where we have the strongest numbers,” Jörg Meuthen, the AfD party whip, told Chancellor Merkel and other leading politicians during a post-election debate on German television. “It is precisely among these migrants, among people with an immigrant background who lead integrated lives here and who cannot believe what is happening to this country.”
While he did not specifically identify the Russian community, his party has devoted substantial resources to swaying this group of voters during the race this year. It translated its fliers and brochures into Russian, ran information stands and outreach programs in Russian-speaking neighborhoods, and catered its platform to the interests of this community. Among the AfD’s core pledges on foreign policy is to lift German sanctions on Russia and seek warmer relations with President Vladimir Putin.
“The AfD really looked after the Russian Germans like no other party,” says Alexander Reiser, the founder of the Vision Union of Emigrants, a Berlin-based advocacy group that seeks to defend the interests of the Russian-German community. “It is the only party that said to the Russians, ‘You are part of the German nation,’” says Reiser, who does not himself support the AfD.
Kremlin media have meanwhile portrayed the party in a decidedly favorable light. “They don’t interpret. They don’t criticize us. They don’t ask provocative questions to get something out of us,” Tschernow tells TIME outside of a polling station in his district on the outskirts of Hannover. “From our point of view, they are objectively showing events,” he added. “So we love them.”
While in some ways subtler than the hacks and leaks that Russia allegedly used to influence the U.S. elections last year, the role of Russian state media in Germany suggests that Moscow has a variety of tricks in its soft-power toolkit, and it tends to choose the one that best fits its target. Through social media, radio and television broadcasts, news outlets that are sponsored by the Russian government have consistently offered viewers an alternative view of German reality, often depicting life under Chancellor Angela Merkel as dangerous, depraved and undemocratic while airing uncritical or laudatory reports about the AfD.
At the same time, the Kremlin-backed media has sought to depict Germany’s Russian-speaking population as part of what Putin has sometimes called the “Russian world.” The most famous example of this type of outreach took place early last year, with a scandal involving a girl named Lisa.
The case of ‘our Lisa’
In January 2016, Russian state television began airing alarming reports about an ethnic Russian girl named Lisa, who had allegedly been kidnapped and gang raped by a group of Muslim refugees in Berlin. The reports were quickly debunked as inaccurate by German police and other officials, who found evidence that the girl had concocted the story.
But senior Russian diplomats continued to accuse the Berlin authorities of staging a cover-up. Referring to the alleged rape victim as “our Lisa,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow at the end of January 2016 that such cases must not be “swept under the carpet.” The Russian embassy in London chimed in a few days later, posting this remark in English on its official Twitter account: “German government threw their country under feet of migrants like a rug, now try wipe their crimes under carpet.”
Such statements of support from Moscow, as well as the coverage of the Lisa case on Russian state television, helped to galvanize the Russian community in Germany against Chancellor Merkel. Across the country, members of this community staged dozens of protests over what became known as the Lisa affair, including one massive demonstration outside Merkel’s offices in Berlin. “It was then that we saw how Russian propaganda works on these groups,” says Olaf Kuehl, an official in the Berlin legislature who handles outreach to the Russian community. “Even if they have all the channels available, they choose to watch the Russian ones, such as RT,” he says, referring to the Kremlin-funded network formerly known as Russia Today. “That’s how the influence gets in.”
During the next elections to the Berlin legislature, which were in Sept. 2016, the impact of that influence seemed clear to Kuehl and other observers. The AfD wound up with 14% of the vote, an unheard-of result for a far-right force in one of Germany’s most liberal cities – and only a few points behind Merkel’s party. The main pockets of support for the right wing turned out to be in the largely Russian-speaking neighborhoods in the east of the capital, especially the district of Marzahn-Hellersdorf, where the AfD got around 23% of the vote.
It was around this time that the AfD’s cooperation with the Russian community began in earnest, says Tschernow, who formally joined the movement in March 2016. A native of St. Petersburg who immigrated to Germany in 1994, Tschernow is one of at least eight native Russian speakers who ran on the AfD party ticket around the country. Like a lot of the Russian diaspora in Germany, he did not take an active interest in politics before the migration crisis of 2015. That summer and fall, Merkel allowed nearly a million refugees, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, to apply for asylum in Germany. The backlash to this decision was fierce across the German political spectrum, and Merkel’s approval ratings went into sharp decline, reaching a five-year low of around 45% in Sept. 2016.
The crisis also gave the AfD a major boost in the polls, and immigrants from the former Soviet Union proved to be among the most receptive to its message against immigration from the Muslim world. “The fear of Islamism runs deep among Russian Germans,” says Reiser, the community leader in Berlin. “And this fear was stirred up by the images shown on Russian television, which depicted [the migration crisis] as a catastrophe of Europe being flooded by migrants.”
The AfD thus had no difficulty in attracting Russian-speakers not only to join the party but also to run for office. In the region of Lower Saxony, for instance, three out of the party’s top 12 candidates for parliament were native Russian speakers, including Tschernow, who campaigned in a predominantly Russian-speaking neighborhood in the east of Hannover. Though he failed to win a seat in the parliament on Sunday, he says the number of Russian candidates on the AfD ticket marked a turn in his community’s political awakening. “It showed that the party trusts us at the highest level to represent them.”
The Kremlin’s blessing
No less important for the Russian wing of the party are the direct contacts that AfD leadership developed with powerful figures in Moscow. In the fall of 2015, Alexander Gauland, who led the AfD ticket in Sunday’s elections, met in St. Petersburg with members of Putin’s political party, United Russia. He also sat down during that visit with the pro-Kremlin billionaire Konstantin Malofeev, who has been known to advance Moscow’s foreign policy interests in Europe. “The idea was to listen to Russian interests, Russian complaints about Western policy, to follow their thinking,” Gauland told the Bloomberg news agency at the time.
Another leader of the AfD, Frauke Petry, traveled to Moscow in February of this year to meet with members of the Russian parliament, including Vyacheslav Volodin, the chamber’s speaker, who previously served as Putin’s deputy chief of staff. The meeting raised alarm in the German media over possible collusion between the Kremlin and the AfD, both of which have fervently denied such allegations.
“We never interfere in the political life and the political processes of other countries,” Putin said in May, when Merkel travelled to his residence in Sochi in part to complain about signs of Russian meddling in the German elections. During that meeting, Merkel raised the Lisa affair in particular, as well as other misleading coverage of German politics shown on Russian state TV. If such incidents were to continue, Merkel said, the German government would take “decisive action” in response.
Tschernow believes her intervention had an impact. Although Russian state media continued giving favorable coverage to the AfD after Merkel confronted Putin, Kremlin broadcasters stopped short of giving the party as much airtime as it wanted. “They could have had some special reports, a series of reportage, for instance,” he says. “But there wasn’t that kind of special support.”
To get his message across to Russian voters, Tschernow still had to spend the weeks before the election driving around with a ladder in the back of his Audi station wagon, hanging AfD posters as high on the lampposts as he could. Among his favorites is a placard that shows a woman in traditional Muslim dress next to the caption, “Islam does not belong in Germany.”
That message, he admits, is not likely to improve social harmony in his district of Hannover, where Tschernow and his fellow Russians live among other migrant communities, among them Turkish people who settled in Germany in the 1970s and ‘80s, as well as newer arrivals from Syria, Iraq and northern Africa. But his aim in politics is not to build bridges among these groups. “We don’t talk to them,” he says. “Given the choice, we find it better to talk to people like us.”
How that approach will work during debates within the German parliament remains to be seen. As the third-most popular party in the land, the AfD will now become a prominent voice in the opposition to Merkel. During a press conference in Berlin on Monday, another one of the party’s leaders, Alice Weidel, said that its first order of business in parliament will be to launch an investigation against the Chancellor for violating the constitution during the migration crisis of 2015.
As that confrontation unfolds, the AfD can expect to maintain the sympathy of at least one powerful ally. “The Russian media will always report what we say, and Russia Today will rebroadcast it in German,” says Tschernow. “So no one will be able to sweep our opinions under the rug. That’s how we see it.”