TIME Germany

Germans Weigh Response to Likely Demands of New Greek PM

Greece's new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives at Maximos Mansion, the Greek Prime Minister's official residence in central Athens, Jan. 26, 2015.
Greece's new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras arrives at Maximos Mansion, the Greek Prime Minister's official residence in central Athens, Jan. 26, 2015. Lefteris Pitarakis—AP

The newly elected government in Greece will test the patience of its German creditors with its demands for more financial help

It would be hard to find a place in Europe that feels more cozily insulated from the troubles of the Greek economy than the marbled halls of KaDeWe, the posh department store in the center of Berlin. Its immaculate champagne bar and moneyed clientele practically ooze with the kind of wealth that Greece and other members of the European Union have struggled to regain since the global financial crisis hit five years ago. But as the electoral upset in Greece reminded Europe over the weekend, German fortunes and Greek misfortunes are deeply intertwined.

“We put so much money there, so much money, and for what?” asked Mark Schaefer, a retired German insurance executive, as he waited for his son to join him on Monday for lunch in the culinary hall of KaDeWe.

It is a common question for Germans these days. Since 2010, their country has shouldered the biggest share of the roughly $270-billion bailout program meant to save Greece from economic ruin. But the left-wing Syriza party that won Sunday’s elections in Greece has asked for some of its bailout loans to be forgiven. The new Greek Prime Minister, Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras, is sure to push for a new round of negotiations over the terms of those loans in the coming months, and they will again test the patience of German taxpayers as well as the solidarity and stability of the shared European market.

“I think maybe it’s time for a break-up,” says Kathrin Scheel, who was browsing the cosmetics section of KaDeWe on Monday. But the laugh that accompanied her remark was perhaps as telling as the sentiment behind it. Frustrated as Germans are with their Greek debtors, most of them do not seriously want to risk a break-up of the Eurozone that unites them with Greece and 17 other members of the European Union. They have, after all, profited enormously from their shared currency, and a Greek exit could put that system in jeopardy.

According to the Bertelsmann Foundation, a leading German think tank, the common currency has added an average of about 37 billion euros (or nearly $42 billion) to the size of Germany’s economy every year since its creation in 1992. Through increased trade and investment, that comes to an average of 450 euros in wealth per person per year in Germany, says Henning vom Stein, the head of Bertelsmann’s office in Brussels. “Germany has the biggest interest in keeping the single market together and making it function more dynamically,” he says in an email to TIME.

So it is no surprise that German leaders have shown a grudging willingness to compromise with a Syriza-led government in Greece. “Since the beginning of the crisis, the goal has been to stabilize the whole of the Eurozone, including Greece, and that remains the goal of our work,” the spokesman for the German government, Steffen Siebert, said on Monday.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be under intense pressure from her own electorate not to give in to Tsipras’ demands for a reduction in Greek debt. Her popularity is based in large part on her handling of the crisis in the Eurozone, and any major concessions to Greece could dent her approval ratings, which hit a high of over 70% in August. That much seemed clear from the tone of the German press on Monday. The country’s most popular daily, Bild, mused on its website about how much the “Greek chaos” would cost German taxpayers, and called Tsipras a “Euro-horror” on its front page, asking: “Should Europe really tremble before the new Greek leader?”

But judging by the market reaction on Monday, the answer is probably not. European traders did not respond to the Greek election with a sell-off, and stocks remained flat at the end of the day, as did the value of the euro after a drop in early trading. So investors seem to believe that Greece and its creditors are likely to find a compromise to keep the Eurozone intact.

Somewhat harder to gauge are the limits of German patience. Asked how much more his government should do to help the struggling Greek economy, Schaefer, the retiree, answered: “It is already too much.” Rich Berliners are not the only ones with that opinion. In a nationwide poll published this month by the German state television network ARD, 61% of respondents said they want Greece to be forced out of the Eurozone if it does not meet the conditions of its loans. So as much as Germans have benefited from the common currency, they may not give their Chancellor much slack in negotiating to preserve it.

TIME Greece

Greek Exit Polls Project Election Win For Anti-Austerity Party

Greece Election
People cast their ballots in booths at a polling station in an Athens school on Jan. 25, 2015. Lefteris Pitarakis—AP

The projected landslide would mark a rejection of the austerity measures imposed on Greece by its creditors

Exit polls in Greece’s national elections suggested an easy win for the radical leftwing Syriza party on Sunday evening, which has promised to “cancel” austerity and defy the European institutions that have given Greece some $270 billion in bailout loans since 2010.

Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras earlier summed up the mood of the day with a stark message for the voters taking part in the day’s elections: “Today we decide if we are going forward or if we are going towards the unknown.” Evidently, his electorate prefers the unknown to the five years of economic austerity they have faced under his government. Later on Sunday, Samaras conceded defeat in the election, the Associated Press reports.

A victory for Syriza, whose ranks include an array of leftists ranging from Marxists to greens, would be a stunning repudiation of the course the European Union has charted out of the worst economic crisis in its history. But it would also send Greece, and Europe, into uncharted waters.

In the best case scenario, Syriza’s success promises to initiate a standoff between a new Greek government and its European lenders, particularly Germany, over the terms of Greece’s bailout program. That could potentially bring about a reduction in Greek debt that will force other troubled economies in Europe to question whether they, too, deserve an easing of their loan obligations.

In the worst case, Greece could be pushed toward a default on its debt and a rancorous exit from the Eurozone, risking the collapse of the common currency that unites and fuels most European economies. Global markets could then be thrown into a potentially destructive downward spiral.

While voting in Athens, the 40-year-old leader of Syriza, Alexis Tsipras, said the vote would mark “the return of dignity” to Greece. His party was expected to get 36% and 39% of the popular vote, according to the exit polls, which are seen as a rough but reliable projection of the final results.

In the country’s 300-member legislature, that would translate into between 148 and 154 seats. So the key question that remained on Sunday night was whether Syriza would win an outright majority and a mandate to form a new government, or whether it would need to find a coalition partner.

“For them a coalition might be better,” says Eleni Panagiotarea, a research fellow at the Eliamep think tank in Athens. “They have promised so many things to so many people that they may need a coalition partner to blame when they eventually fail to deliver.”

Many of Syriza’s promises do seem unrealistic. On the campaign trail, Tsipras pledged to drastically raise the minimum wage, hike social spending and cut taxes, all while keeping the federal budget balanced. He has also promised to keep Greece in the Eurozone while defying the terms of its E.U. bailout.

But regardless of whether such promises can be kept, they seem to have appealed to an electorate suffering from the impositions of austerity measures. The size of the Greek economy has contracted by a quarter since the onset of the financial crisis in 2009. Unemployment has soared to about a quarter of the population, with more than half of young people jobless in Greece. Under the spending cuts Samaras’ government has been forced to impose as a condition of its loans, roughly a third of the country’s 9.8 million voters have seen their social security and medical insurance slashed.

So it has long seemed only a matter of time before these deprivations brought about a revolt at the ballot box. As the European nation worst hit by the financial crisis, Greece has now become the first to see public resentment bring an anti-austerity party to the threshold of power. But in the months and years ahead, other E.U. members weighed down by crippling debt will be watching Greece to see whether it manages to rid itself of austerity in a face-off with European creditors.

Success in that effort could encourage the rise of similar political forces in debt-laden countries like Portugal and Italy, piling ever more pressure on European banks and donor countries to write off the loans they have given to their struggling neighbors. The strain on the E.U.’s economic stability would be severe, but not quite as severe as it would be in the case of a Greek exit from the Eurozone. Such an outcome would threaten to unwind the common market that has kept Europe united for a generation. That would surely mark a step into the unknown.

TIME Greece

Greek Elections Risk a ‘Game of Chicken’ With German and E.U. Lenders

The leader of Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras, listens to a question during a televised press conference on Jan. 23, 2015 at the Zappion Hall in Athens.
The leader of Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras, listens to a question during a televised press conference on Jan. 23, 2015 at the Zappion Hall in Athens. Louisa Gouliamaki—AFP/Getty Images

The likely victory of the radical left-wing Syriza party will set the stage for another confrontation over Greek debt and the future of Europe's single market

Last May, during a conference with his left-wing allies in Germany, the leader of Greece’s populist Syriza party offered a warning to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “I regret that I will say it here in Berlin,” Alexis Tsipras told his comrades from the German fringe party known as Die Linke (The Left). “Merkel, who will listen to it, will be upset. But soon she will have to deal with a government of the Left in Greece.”

That message now seems prophetic. Not only is Syriza expected take the most votes in this weekend’s Greek parliamentary elections, but the core platform of its leader is set to pose a major challenge for the German Chancellor. Tsipras, the telegenic populist who, at 40, could soon become the first politician from the radical left to take power in Europe in a generation, has pledged to defy his country’s creditors, particularly Germany, by rejecting the austerity measures they have imposed on Greece as a condition for the 240-billion-euros ($278 billion) worth of bailouts it has received since 2010.

He has also asked Germany and other European donor nations to forgive a large chunk of Greece’s debt. One alternative would be for Greece to abandon the European Union’s common currency, the euro, and slam the door behind by declaring some form of bankruptcy. That prospect, known as the Greek exit, or “Grexit,” could be calamitous for the stability and long-term prosperity of the E.U. economy, in particular the German locomotive that drives it.

For one thing, it would pose the risk of a domino effect, as other debt-laden countries, notably Portugal, Spain and Italy, will start to consider bailing on the Eurozone as well, says Henning vom Stein, the head of the Brussels office for the Bertelsmann Foundation, a leading European think-tank. “It will not end at Greece,” he says. “The single market is the engine of the European Union,“ he adds, and if Greece leaves, the whole thing could start to unravel.

For Greece, however, that would also be a disaster. Abandoning the euro would isolate its economy and force it to return to its former currency, the drachma, which would then plunge in value. Even a partial default on its debt would also sever Greece’s access to more loans for years to come. “There is no scenario under which an exit would make sense for Greece,” says Henning Vöpel, a senior economist at the Hamburg Institute of International Economics. So raising the prospect of a Grexit “is not a credible threat,” he adds.

It is more like the start of a painful negotiation over what to do about the failing Greek economy. What seems clear to all sides is that something has to give. The debt burden of the Greek government is now at 177% of its GDP, the highest in Europe, while the austerity measures imposed on Greece by its European creditors have forced massive budget cuts on everything from medical care to pensions and road maintenance. More than a quarter of the population is now unemployed, and among Greek youth, the jobless rate is close to 60%.

The resulting social unrest has proven fertile ground for populist parties like Syriza, and the result will be clear in this weekend’s elections. Tsipras is already preparing for the day after. In an appeal published this month in the German daily Handelsballt, he asked the German public to help give Greece a “European New Deal” that would release the Greek people from the humiliating conditions of austerity. “Let me be frank,” he wrote, “Greece’s debt is currently unsustainable and will never be serviced, especially while Greece is being subjected to continuous fiscal water boarding.”

There have been signs that Europe is prepared to yield to some of Syriza’s demands. The one-trillion euro stimulus program that the European Central Bank (ECB) announced on Thursday could ultimately, for instance, allow the bank to buy back Greek bonds, giving the struggling economy an infusion of cash and easing its debt load. With that program, “The ECB has made this bargaining solution possible,” says Vöpel, the Hamburg economist, in an email to TIME.

But Europe’s wealthier nations are still a long way off from accepting Syriza’s core demand — a reduction in the principle value of Greek debt. At the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday, one of the more recalcitrant voices on this issue was Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb: “It will be very difficult for us to forgive any loans,” he said during a panel discussion. At the same time, a Grexit would be still more difficult, he added: “We need to try to avoid the dirty exit at all costs.”

The key question now is how high those costs will be for Europe. Among the more affluent European nations, the rise of Eurosceptic parties, such as the National Front in France and the UKIP in the U.K., suggests that voters are already tired of bailing out their struggling neighbors, says Vöpel. So it will be hard for Merkel and her wealthy colleagues to convince their voters that, for the sake of European prosperity and solidarity, Greece needs yet another break.

Nor will it be easy for any Greek government to stay the course of austerity without causing a major public backlash. Already violent street protests have become the norm in Athens, often calling for Greece to throw off the strictures of its bailout program and go it alone. “There is quite a serious anti-German sentiment among the Greek population,” says Eleni Panagiotarea, a research fellow at the Eliamep think tank in Athens. “They feel they have been marginalized, and they really put the blame on Germany for imposing these very strict and harsh [loan] conditions.”

The Syriza campaign has played on those feelings, painting the country’s lenders as the source of Greece’s troubles since the global financial crisis began. But after the vote, the left-wing party will still need to compromise with the very institutions it has been demonizing, and the threat of a Grexit will be a useful tool. “They’re basically playing a game of chicken,” Panagiotarea says of the Syriza party. “Their logic is that these lending institutions will blink first, because they do not want to take the blame for a Grexit.”

On that score Syriza is probably right. The winner in a game of chicken is usually the one who has less to lose, and while the Greek economy has nearly reached rock bottom, Germany, like the rest of the E.U., cannot afford to risk an unraveling of the single market on which its economic growth depends. They would sooner preserve it by appeasing at least some of Syriza’s demands, or as the Finnish Prime Minister put it in Davos, “at any cost.”

TIME europe

Europe Appeals to Putin’s Ego As it Seeks Peace in Ukraine

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a session of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on Jan. 22, 2015 in Davos.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a session of the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting on Jan. 22, 2015 in Davos. Fabrice Cofrini—AFP/Getty Images

In Davos, European leaders offer to make Putin's Eurasian dreams come true — but only if the conflict in Ukraine ends

Given the amount of blood still being spilled on a daily basis in the war in eastern Ukraine, it may seem premature, if not also in bad taste, to offer one of the more stubborn belligerents in the conflict a long-term path toward integration with the West. But on Thursday, that is what Russia got from some of the European leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. And it was Germany leading the charge.

During her afternoon appearance at the annual confab of investors and policymakers, German Chancellor Angela Merkel began by rattling off some of her typically harsh condemnations of Russia. With the annexation of Crimea last spring and the subsequent support for a violent rebellion in Ukraine’s eastern regions, Moscow had violated the “elementary principles of the European peaceful order,” she said. “It is a clear and flagrant violation of what has made us live and coexist peacefully together in Europe” since the end of World War II, Merkel added.

But when the moderator asked how she saw the conflict playing out in the more distant future, the Chancellor brought up the geopolitical vision (some would call it a fantasy) that Russian President Vladimir Putin has long been promulgating. “Later on, in the bigger picture,” Merkel said, “we can try to explore possibilities of cooperation, and an economic area that President Putin himself called ‘from Vladivostok to Lisbon.’”

This was a reference to the proposed free trade zone that Putin envisions stretching some 14,000 kilometers one day from the western edge of Europe to the eastern edge of Russia – and conspicuously leaving the U.S. out. For years, Putin has been seeking to lay the ground for such a project, most recently with the creation of the Eurasian Union, a political and economic bloc modeled on the European Union but with Moscow at its center of gravity. Comprised so far of only four post-Soviet countries – Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia, with the impoverished nation of Kyrgyzstan next in line to join – the Eurasian Union legally came into being as of Jan. 1.

But three weeks into its existence, it seems to have found a strategic negotiating partner in the far wealthier and more powerful union to the west. Or at least that’s what some of the E.U.’s key leaders now want Putin to believe.

Apart from Merkel, the elder statesman Jose Manuel Barroso, whose ten-year term as the E.U.’s most senior official ended in October, also brought up the idea of the Eurasian and European Unions forming a brotherly bond. “Why can’t we do it with the Eurasian Union? We want to do it,” he said in Davos on Thursday, referring to Putin’s grand plan. “Can we one day have this dream? I spoke several times with President Putin about that, from Lisbon to Vladivostok. Can it happen? I believe it can happen.”

And if Putin still believes the same, these remarks would be music to his ears. Rare is the speech these days when Putin does not slip in a pointed reference to his idea of a “united space” between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In his reasoning, not only would it give Russia’s natural resources unhindered access to a practically limitless market, but it would put Moscow in a grand constellation of European capitals – finally an equal among powerful Western friends. That, along with the prospect of squeezing the U.S. off the continent, would be Putin’s greatest geopolitical triumph.

But the reason E.U. leaders seem to have suddenly warmed to this idea is not because they believe it to be in the cards nor, for that matter, because they think it particularly attractive. (It was hard enough for the E.U. economy to absorb Eastern European members like Romania and Bulgaria in recent years. Now imagine the flows of jobs and migrants if the borders between France and, say, Kyrgyzstan were to drop.) Much more likely, the West simply needed a carrot to dangle in front of Russia, and a way to coax a change in Putin’s thinking on Ukraine.

That much seemed clear from the remarks of Merkel’s deputy and coalition partner, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel. During a panel discussion in Davos on Thursday, he also brought up the idea of integration with the Eurasian Union, but in a slightly different vein. “What can we offer to Russia?” he asked. “What can be an idea for a partnership after we solve the current problems?”

One answer is the fulfillment – or the chance for fulfillment – of Putin’s geopolitical pipedream. “It was Putin’s idea to have a free trade zone between Lisbon and Vladivostok. In a different world than we are in today, it would be a good idea,” Gabriel said.

The suggestion, in Gabriel’s remarks and the others’, was that Putin must first help create that different world – one in which Ukraine is restored to its previous borders and left to live in peace. Up to now, the West has used little more than sanctions to make Putin work toward that reality, but they have not been able to change the situation on the ground. On the contrary, as the slump in global oil prices multiplied the pain of those sanctions on the Russian petrostate, Moscow only increased its support to the separatist rebellion, providing a steady supply of arms, volunteers and ample political cover for the rebel militias in eastern Ukraine.

The peace deal Russia signed in September during a round of negotiations in Minsk, Belarus, has somewhat slowed the fighting but certainly not stopped it. Roughly 2,000 people have been killed in the war since then, bringing the overall death toll to some 5,000 people since April, and a new assault from the Russian-backed rebels this month gave them control of a strategic airport in the city of Donetsk. So eastern Ukraine has continued on its way, with Russia’s help, toward becoming a massive frozen conflict on the E.U.’s doorstep.

Given that context, the idea floated in Davos seems like an attempt to break the stalemate. But it relies to a large extent on Putin being naïve. For one thing, he knows that without the membership of Ukraine – the biggest and most important neighbor Russia has – his Eurasian Union is hardly an equal partner to the E.U. in any trade negotiation. It is at best a shabby incarnation of the Soviet Goliath, still with Russia at its heart but missing most of its essential limbs, not to mention its former prowess in education and technology. Even years from now, if Putin does attract (or coerce) the membership of a few other post-Soviet countries, the Eurasian Union would have a hard time competing with the E.U. even from behind a high wall of protectionist trade barriers, and it would almost certainly wither if those barriers came down between Lisbon and Vladivostok.

Underneath its idealism, then, the proposal that Merkel and her allies offered Putin in Davos on Thursday may not do much more than stoke his ego. But for the sake of peace in Ukraine, they can be forgiven for hoping he goes for it.

TIME Davos

Ukrainian President Pleads for Western Aid at Davos

The president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko speaks with a piece of a damaged passenger bus hit by a shell that killed twelve passengers and injured 13 others at a Ukrainian military checkpoint near the town of Volnovakha, during a panel session on the first day of the 45th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Jan. 21, 2015.
The president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko speaks with a piece of a damaged passenger bus hit by a shell that killed twelve passengers and injured 13 others at a Ukrainian military checkpoint near the town of Volnovakha, during a panel session on the first day of the 45th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Jan. 21, 2015. Laurent Gillieron—EPA

Poroshenko channels Charlie Hebdo in an emotional speech in Switzerland

In the middle of his speech on Wednesday at the World Economic Forum, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko left the podium, walked to the edge of the stage and took a large hunk of metal from a man in the audience. It was a shrapnel-scarred panel from a public bus, Poroshenko explained, that was hit by a rocket on Jan. 13 near the Ukrainian town of Volnovakha, killing 13 of its passengers and wounding more than a dozen others.

“For me this is a symbol, a symbol of the terrorist attack against my country, the same way it is a symbol like Charlie Hebdo,” he said, referring to the French satirical weekly whose staff were massacred inside their newsroom on Jan. 9 by Islamist terrorists. Then Poroshenko pointed to a pin on his lapel that was inscribed with the words, ‘Je suis Volnovakha.’

The link he drew between these two tragedies was not an obvious one. The journalists of Charlie Hebdo were killed in a deliberate act of religious extremism, motivated by the newspaper’s publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet of Islam. The passengers on the bus at Volnovakha were accidental casualties in a war that has already claimed almost 5,000 lives, most of them civilians. But Poroshenko needed to make that connection, not just to strike a chord with his audience of economists, investors and officials from around the world, but to push back against what Poroshenko later called “Ukrainian fatigue.”

By that he meant the growing wariness in the West with the Ukrainian crisis, and for Poroshenko’s government, it is nearly as dangerous as Russia’s military incursions. Nine months have passed since the war in Ukraine’s eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk began, and there is still no clear prospect for a resolution. Despite the terms of a peace deal signed on Sept. 5, Russia has refused to close its border with Ukraine to the flow of weapons and reinforcements for the rebel militias. Indeed, just this week, Ukraine again raised the alarm over hundreds of Russian troops coming across the border to aid the rebels in a fresh assault.

But those developments have made far fewer headlines than they would have even a few weeks ago, before the world’s attention turned to the more shocking and immediate news from Paris and the threat from terrorism emanating from the Middle East. Already, it seems, Ukrainian fatigue is setting in and forcing Poroshenko to curb some of his hopes for Western support.

During his speech at the Davos forum, the President said that Ukraine is no longer asking for weapons supplies and other “lethal aid” from the West to help fight the conflict, even though that was one of Poroshenko’s key requests when he visited Washington in September to meet with President Barack Obama and other top U.S. officials.

His expectations for financial aid, however, seemed undimished in Davos. “We need a financial pillow [that] can support us during the reforms,” he said in his speech. On top of the $17 billion bailout that Ukraine secured in April from the International Monetary Fund, Poroshenko’s government needs about $15 billion more to plug a gap in its finances that could lead to bankruptcy if it continues to grow. A mission from the IMF has been in Kiev since Jan. 8, to review the possibility of providing that support, and in Davos on Wednesday, IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said she would back a bigger funding program for Ukraine, though she did not provide any specific figures.

For Poroshenko, securing that aid will not just mean carrying out the steep budget cuts and other financial reforms that have come as a condition of IMF loans. He will also need to keep sympathy for Ukraine from fading in the minds of his Western counterparts and the taxpayers they represent. His rhetoric in Davos seemed geared to that purpose.

“We are fighting for European security. We are fighting for European values,” he said in his speech. “Somebody said that this is very expensive to fight for peace… They measured expenses by price and said that it is very expensive. We and all the civilized world are fighting for values,” he concluded. But now, as the war in Ukraine drags on, it will be up to Western lenders to judge how much support those values will be worth.

TIME Germany

Meet the German Activist Leading the Movement Against ‘Islamization’

Bachmann, co-leaders of anti-immigration group PEGIDA, a German abbreviation for "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West", gestures during a Reuters interview in Dresden
Lutz Bachmann, co-leader of anti-immigration group PEGIDA, a German abbreviation for "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West" during a Reuters interview in Dresden on Jan. 12, 2015. Faabrizio Bensch—Reuters

Once a professional soccer player and fugitive from German law, Lutz Bachmann has rallied the disparate forces of the German right against the "parallel societies" of Muslims in Europe

Early on Tuesday afternoon, Lutz Bachmann, a rising star of the German right, stepped out of the Holiday Inn in his hometown of Dresden to take a break from a series of interviews. He lit a cigarette, pulled a smartphone from his pocket and, with a few taps, brought up the Facebook page of the movement he founded in October, “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West,” better known by its catchy German acronym, Pegida. “Look at that,” he told me, pointing at the screen. “It’s just unbelievable.” The statistics of the page had spiked, with nearly 2.5 million visits in the past week, and almost half a million people liking or sharing it.

Bachmann was elated. Over the past three months, the 41-year-old convicted felon with old ties to German soccer clubs has managed to tap into a potent strain of xenophobia. The weekly marches he has organized in Dresden have united many of the disaffected forces of the right, from Christian conservatives to neo-Nazis, under a sea of anti-Islamic banners, white crosses and German flags. Their growing popularity has unnerved the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel and frightened immigrant communities in many German cities, especially after the latest Pegida rally coincided with the murder of a young Muslim asylum seeker.

On Monday night, just hours after Bachmann led his latest march through the center of Dresden, Khaled Idris Bahray, a 20-year-old native of Eritrea, was stabbed to death outside his apartment block in the south of the city. Dieter Kroll, chief of the Dresden police, concluded on Wednesday that it was a murder. According to a report in the Guardian, a swastika had been scrawled on the door of Bahray’s apartment, where he was living with several other asylum seekers, three days before he was killed. A warning had reportedly been written beside that Nazi symbol: “We’ll get you all.”

Bachmann, who publicly renounces extremist violence of any kind, denies that the killing had anything to with Pegida. What seems clear, however, is that race relations in Germany have reached their tensest point in years since the terrorist attacks last week in neighboring France. That massacre, which saw Islamist gunmen shoot 17 people dead in a series of coordinated attacks in Paris, gave Bachmann’s message about Islam a powerful new talking point. But he insists his enemy is not the religion itself. It’s what he calls the “parallel societies” that form in Muslim neighborhoods across Germany and, in his view, pose a threat to Europe’s “Judeo-Christian values.”

“The problem for us is this parallel society, that they don’t accept and respect German law. They say they are living for Sharia law,” he tells TIME in an interview. “We are looking at the world, and we see what happens in Belgium, in Holland, in France, in the U.K.…where they have these parallel societies in schools. They screwed it up, and we don’t want this to happen here.”

That message has struck a chord in Germany. A survey conducted last month found that 30% of respondents had “full and total” sympathy for Pegida’s cause, the same level of support that Merkel’s political party got in the German elections to the European Parliament last year. During Pegida’s latest rally in Dresden on Jan. 12, the group set another attendance record — roughly 25,000 people came out to hear Bachmann speak from a stage built out of a repurposed meat locker.

Wearing a parka against the cold and two weeks’ worth of stubble, he told the crowd that, “Paris is another reason to justify the existence of Pegida.” Billed as a “march of mourning” for the victims of the Paris attacks, the rally began with a moment of silence to honor them. But the Islamist violence in Paris has also been a source of validation for Pegida. “We pulled it off!” Bachmann said. “We and our issues are the main issue around the world!”

The following day, Merkel made a fresh attempt to steal back command of those issues. The Chancellor had already used her televised address on New Year’s Eve to warn that Pegida activists had “coldness and even hatred in their hearts,” and her appearance on Tuesday at the annual Islam Conference in Berlin came with a similar message. “Xenophobia, racism, extremism have no place” in Germany, she told the summit of Muslim community leaders.

A few hours later, she appeared on a stage before Brandenburg Gate, along with nearly every member of her cabinet, to hold a rally for interfaith understanding in the wake of the Paris attacks. It began with an Islamic prayer sung by an imam and, as a light rain fell over the crowd of some 15,000 people on the square, it culminated with Merkel and her ministers standing arm-in-arm with imams and other religious leaders.

But the somber theatrics of that event betrayed just how worried the government is about Pegida’s rise. It’s not hard to see why. Given its history with Nazism, Germany has spent decades developing a kind of social immunity to the far right through education and public discourse. The unwieldy word for this effort in German is Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung — which roughly translates as, “wrestling the past into submission” — and it has proven relatively effective. While nationalist and xenophobic parties have emerged to win strong support in other European states (such as the Front National in France, UKIP in in the UK and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands), the far-right end of the German political spectrum has long been comparatively vacant except for a couple of marginal groups.

But the social concerns that allow such parties to thrive are as alive in Germany as they are anywhere else in Europe. Last year alone, the number of asylum applications in Germany nearly doubled to about 200,000, many of them from war-torn Syria. In a survey conducted in November and published last week, an astonishing 40% of Germans said they do not feel at home in their own country because of its purported Islamization. A quarter of them said Germany should no longer admit any Muslim migrants at all, while the number of Germans who feel that Islam is incompatible with life in the West has grown from 52% in 2012 to 61% at the end of last year, the survey from the Bertelsmann Stiftung think tank found.

The Paris attacks, the worst in France’s recent history, have meanwhile heightened fears in Germany about the potential for radicalism in immigrant communities. As of late November, more than 500 German citizens had gone to fight alongside the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), and around 180 of them had returned, according to Germany’s domestic security service. One ISIS fighter, who speaks German with no accent, has released several videos urging German Muslims to join the jihad and calling for attacks against his home country. Identified only as Silvio K. by German authorities, the 27-year-old radical was born in the region of Saxony, whose capital is Dresden.

By the standards of the European right, however, Pegida’s proposals for dealing with such problems hardly seem radical. Their 19-point manifesto calls for stricter asylum laws and a constitutional requirement on immigrants to assimilate into German society. “In Idaho this would be mainstream,” says Gerald Praschl, the political editor of the most popular weekly tabloid in the former East Germany. “But here it is considered right wing.”

As a result, Germany’s political parties have tended to sidestep these issues, leading many of Pegida’s supporters to feel that the government ignores their concerns. “The contact got lost between the politicians and the people,” says Bachmann. “We are not at all represented by any parties in Germany.”

But given his past, Bachmann seems like an unlikely spokesman for the Christian values he extols. In 1998, when he was about 25 years old, he was sentenced to several years in prison for burglary and, instead of serving his time, he fled to South Africa to live as a fugitive. “That was like a click in the brain,” he says of his decision to go on the lam. “I became a refugee. But a refugee from German law.”

He arrived in Capetown a few years after the end of apartheid and along with a fellow German expatriate, Bachmann says he opened a nightclub catering to the black majority. “It was scandalous,” he says. “People were shouting at me, ‘How can you do this as a German, as a white? How can you open a night club for blacks?’”

His sojourn lasted about two years before immigration officials caught up with him, and he was deported back to Germany, where he served two years in prison before being let out on parole. In 2008, he was again arrested in Dresden, this time for possession of cocaine, and given a three year suspended sentence. “Everybody knows I did this, because I’m quite a well known person in this city,” he says of his legal troubles. “But it was a long time ago.” And it does not appear to have hurt his standing among the Pegida faithful.

On the contrary, his mottled past and his working-class upbringing – Bachmann is the son of a butcher – seem to have won him sympathy among Germans fed up with their polished political elites. His affiliations with local soccer clubs have also given him another base of support. In his interview with TIME, Bachmann revealed that he played professional soccer for the teams in Dresden and Dusseldorf. But when prodded for details, he turned to Pegida’s spokeswoman, Kathrin Oertel, and asked her in German whether this part of his past could serve as a “reference to hooligans.” Oertel answered: “Exactly,” and Bachmann declined to answer any more questions about soccer.

According to Dresden police, the Pegida rallies have attracted hundreds of violent soccer hooligans and right-wing extremists, and Bachmann admits that they are among the crowds. “But it is less than one percent,” he says. “At the demonstrations against Pegida, there are about 600 left-wing violent people, which means almost 10%.”

That didn’t seem far from the truth in Dresden on Monday night. As the tide of Pegida supporters marched through the city, clusters of counter-protestors lined the route, shouting abuse at the marchers and, at least once, rushing forward to provoke a fight that riot police were able to stop. Nationwide, rallies against Pegida’s brand of xenophobia have far outnumbered the marches that Bachman has organized in Dresden.

The coming weeks and months will tell which current of German society has more momentum. Already Pegida has inspired copycat movements in several European countries, notably Switzerland and Norway, and the group’s marches in Dresden continue to swell by the week. Eventually Bachmann hopes that Merkel and her government will initiate the reforms to asylum law that Pegida is demanding. And what if they continue to denounce the movement as a bunch of hateful quacks? “Well, there was already a revolution in 1989 coming from Eastern Germany, and they know what we are able to do here if we keep on growing,” he says, referring to the popular uprising that overthrew East Germany’s communist government that year. “But we’ll see what happens. As we say in Germany, we don’t know where this train is going.”

TIME Germany

Charlie Hebdo Tragedy Creates Momentum for German Right Wing

The protests against "Islamization" in the German city of Dresden will now have a new rallying cry

On Wednesday afternoon, just a few hours after the massacre at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the newest right-wing movement in neighboring Germany took the chance to declare itself prophetic. Since it was founded in October, the group known as PEGIDA — or Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West — had been rallying every Monday in the city of Dresden to warn against the threat it saw from an influx of Muslim immigrants. Now, with Islamic extremists suspected of attacking the Paris newsroom of Charlie Hebdo, the PEGIDA movement felt its cause was validated.

“The Islamists, which PEGIDA has been warning about for 12 weeks, showed France that they are not capable of democracy, but instead look to violence and death as an answer,” the group said on its Facebook page. “Our politicians want us to believe the opposite. Must such a tragedy happen here in Germany first?”

The slaughter at Charlie Hebdo, which was apparently attacked for publishing cartoons that mocked the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, could not have come at a more opportune time for PEGIDA and its activists. Their weekly protests against the perceived “Islamization” of Germany had been gaining momentum for months, but not quite as fast as the public and political backlash against them. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had even used her televised address on New Year’s Eve to condemn PEGIDA’s activists as having “coldness and even hate in their hearts.” Since mid-December, counterdemonstrations calling for tolerance and openness toward Muslim migrants around the country had begun to drown out PEGIDA’s rallies in Dresden.

But that trend could now be reversed. “The movement itself will definitely interpret [the attack on Charlie Hebdo] as a vindication for its very existence,” says Carool Kersten, who studies Islam at King’s College University in London.

That was clear from the reactions coming from the more established forces on Germany’s political right. Frank Franz, the chairman of the far-right National Democratic Party, which has supported the PEGIDA demonstrations, declared on Wednesday in a Facebook post that the terrorist attack in Paris had revealed the “brutal and hateful grimace” of European multiculturalism. The leaders of another right-wing party, Alternative for Germany, also chimed in with their support. Against the background of the massacre in Paris, “the demands of PEGIDA have particular relevance and weight,” said the party’s spokesman and one of its founding members, Alexander Gauland.

Even a week ago PEGIDA’s relevance was still an open question. The region of Saxony, where the movement was formed this fall, is one of the most racially homogenous in the country, with Muslim immigrants making up less than 1% of the population. Its most recent rally on Jan. 5 in the regional capital of Dresden was the largest to date, drawing some 18,000 people. But that showing was dwarfed by the counterdemonstrations held in several cities around the country, including Cologne and Berlin.

“PEGIDA is only a small story,” says Andreas Zick, who studies social conflicts at Germany’s Bielefeld University. And its attempt to gain political heft on the back of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy has seemed predictable enough.

The larger question is whether the ploy will work, as it has previously in other parts of Europe. A decade ago, in the fall of 2004, the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, whose works had been harshly critical of Islam, was gunned down in Amsterdam by a Muslim extremist, causing a surge of anti-Islamic feeling throughout the Netherlands, says Kersten, the professor from King’s College London. “Here was a country that always defined itself through tolerance, and suddenly the gloves came off,” he says. “These kinds of atrocities often lead people to cross that threshold.”

The right-wing politician Geert Wilders, then a marginal figure in Dutch politics, drew on that outrage to gain support for his Party of Freedom, which he established within a year of van Gogh’s murder. Today that party is one of the most prominent forces in the national parliament, and its xenophobic rhetoric enjoys strong support.

Given the dark history of World War II, Germany has for years been particularly resistant to the emergence of such political forces from the right. But the mood seems ripe for that to change. A survey conducted in December by the German news outlet Zeit Online found that nearly half of respondents expressed some level of sympathy for the PEGIDA rallies against “Islamization.” And in the wake of the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, PEGIDA’s Facebook page has racked up an additional 8,000 supporters, bringing its total list of followers to nearly 122,000.

So when the group holds its next demonstration on Monday in Dresden, it will have a lot more momentum, and a new rallying cry, thanks to the terrorist attack in neighboring France. The coming months could then see the emergence of a powerful new force on the right wing of German politics.

TIME russia

Putin Watches Russian Economy Collapse Along With His Stature

The plummeting ruble may force the Russian President to rethink his adventures abroad

Stability was always the watchword of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, and for more than a decade it rang true. Ever since he came to power in 2000, Putin presented himself as the antidote to what Russians call the “wild ’90s,” the decade of economic upheaval that culminated in the crash of 1998. The high price of oil, and the fortunes it brought the Russian petrostate, have since allowed Putin to keep his promise of prosperity and economic growth. But this week the myth of Putin the Stabilizer collapsed, along with the value of the national currency.

Driven down by a six-month plunge in the price of oil, the ruble lost about a quarter of its value against the dollar in the first two days of this week, its steepest fall since the crash of 1998, when Russia defaulted on its debt. The central bank took drastic measures to avoid the risk of another default on Monday night, hiking interest rates from 10.5% to 17% in a desperate attempt to make Russians keep their rubles in the bank instead of spending them on foreign currency. But it came too late. The rate hike, also the steepest since 1998, only managed to forestall the collapse of the ruble for about 10 minutes when markets opened on Tuesday morning.

Putin, meanwhile, kept his head in the sand. Reporters who called his spokesman with questions about the ruble’s fall were told to call the Prime Minister or the Cabinet, as though the economy was not the President’s concern. The most notable item on the Kremlin’s website on Tuesday was a presidential order to prepare a “fundamental” history of the region of Crimea, which Putin annexed from Ukraine this spring. Though it was hardly a tonic for the national economy, this decree hinted at Putin’s plan for riding out the storm.

The annexation of Crimea, which drove Putin’s approval ratings to record highs this year, is still the main pillar propping up his popularity. But that is not likely to remain the case, according to Lev Gudkov, head of Russia’s leading independent pollster, the Levada Center. “The more people are connected to the market economy, the more critical they are of the rhetoric and demagoguery of our President,” Gudkov wrote in an analysis published on Tuesday. By spring, he predicted, public discontent would reach down to the poorest and least educated segments of the population, as economic realities they see all around them stand in ever starker contrast to the rosy picture presented on Russian state TV.

The government admitted as much on Tuesday. “We are ending the year with 15.7 million poor people nationwide,” said Olga Golodets, the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of social affairs. “And in the context of inflation their numbers will inevitably grow, especially among families with children,” she told a meeting of officials and social workers.

That’s a startling prospect for a nation that has seen a steady decline in the poverty rate since Putin came to power. But when the Cabinet held an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the ruble crisis, the ministers failed to come up with any concrete measures to prevent the economy from sinking into a deep depression next year. Already there is talk of Russia being forced to introduce capital controls, or imposing restrictions on foreign trading to make it harder to sell off rubles. That might be enough to save the economy, but it would damage domestic firms and outrage the business elites who have been among Putin’s closest supporters.

MORE: Gorbachev Blames the U.S. for Provoking ‘New Cold War’

As the recession takes hold, the state’s most reliable means of deflecting public outrage will, as usual, involve blaming the West. So far pro-Kremlin news outlets have tended to avoid blaming the fall in the oil price on some kind of American conspiracy, but Putin will be tempted to offer the public such fables as the economy continues to sink. “This is the only answer,” says Kirill Petrov, chief analyst at Minchenko Consulting, a Kremlin-connected political-advisory firm. “This line would be effective, at least in the short term.”

Still, the Kremlin seems to recognize that, in the longer term, it cannot continue its struggle with the West over Ukraine without piling ever more strain on the Russian economy. That much has been clear from Putin’s softer tone toward Ukraine during the recent drop in the ruble’s value. On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov even denied that Moscow has “any difficulties” in its dialogue with Ukrainian leaders, and his American counterpart, Secretary of State John Kerry, said the same day that Russia has been making “constructive moves” toward resolving the Ukrainian conflict.

It’s not likely to be enough to persuade the U.S. to ease the pressure on Russia’s economy. Indeed, President Barack Obama is expected later this week to sign a bill piling more sanctions on Russian state companies and businessmen. That may provide fresh ammunition for Putin’s anti-American rhetoric, but it could worsen what is already a dire economic situation at home. And if the President continues trying to dismiss those problems as the necessary price of his foreign policy, the core promise of stability that he made to his people upon taking power will crumble along with his country’s currency. At this rate of economic decline, the “wild ’90s” could wind up feeling tame in comparison with what’s to come.

Read next: Why Russia Is Destroying Its Own Economy

TIME russia

Exclusive: Gorbachev Blames the U.S. for Provoking ‘New Cold War’

Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin, Nov. 8, 2014.
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Berlin, Nov. 8, 2014. Sean Gallup—Getty Images

"It’s America calling the shots in everything!” the former Soviet leader tells TIME

In the offices of Mikhail Gorbachev, still sharp at 83 and plainspoken as ever, the walls are lined with photos from his travels as the leader of the Soviet Union and, in the years after its demise, as a living icon of the Cold War. One picture shows him with his late wife Raisa standing arm-in-arm with Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. In another frame he wears a cowboy hat and jeans as he stands beside Ronald Reagan, the U.S. President who famously branded Gorbachev’s country an “evil empire” in 1983. These portraits, like many others in his Moscow office, betray Gorbachev’s affection for his former American adversaries.

But in the course of this year those feelings seem to have been subsumed in a rising sense of animosity, as Russia and the West enter what Gorbachev calls a new Cold War. “Are we in the middle of a new Cold War? Indeed we are,” he tells TIME in an interview last month at the Moscow branch of the Gorbachev Foundation, the international advocacy group he founded in 1991, when he was forced to resign from his post as President due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

MORE: Vladimir Putin, TIME Person of the Year runner-up

The elder statesman, who was named TIME’s Person of the Year in 1987 and ‘Man of the Decade’ two years later, is not the first to declare the start of a new Cold War this year. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March has caused officials and pundits around the world to warn that the West’s efforts to isolate Russia have opened a dangerous gulf between them. But the roots of the present standoff run deeper than this spring, says Gorbachev, and the blame for it lies with the Americans.

In the years that followed the Soviet collapse, the West “tried to turn us into some kind of backwater, a province,” he says. “Our nation could not let that pass. It’s not just about pride. It’s about a situation where people speak to you however they want, impose limitations, and so on. It’s America calling the shots in everything!”

For a country whose leaders remember the years when Russia was a superpower, the American dominance of global affairs has always been a taunting reality and a constant source of frustration. Instead of treating Russia as an equal partner, the West tried to “push us out of politics,” says Gorbachev, most recently during the revolution that brought a pro-Western government to power in Ukraine early this year. Vladimir Putin’s reaction to that uprising sought to claw back some of the influence Russia had lost, and for that the Russian President has earned Gorbachev’s admiration.

“Putin started acting on his own,” says Gorbachev, referring to the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. “And his position was in the interests of the majority.”

Even a year ago such praise would have been hard to imagine coming from Putin’s Soviet predecessor. In the spring of 2013, Gorbachev attacked Putin for persecuting opposition activists and silencing dissent. He called that year’s crackdown an “attack on the rights of citizens” during an interview with the BBC, and gave Putin the following advice: “For goodness sake, you shouldn’t be afraid of your own people…What people want and expect their president to do is to restore an open, direct dialogue with them.”

Such criticism has since vanished from Gorbachev’s public remarks, much as it has from the rhetoric of many of Putin’s former critics. The annexation of Crimea sent the President’s approval ratings soaring to record highs of well over 80% this year, driven upward by a jingoistic sense of pride even as Western sanctions eat into the value of the Russian currency and push its economy toward recession. Gorbachev now seems willing to forgive Putin for his authoritarian tendencies as long as he works to restore the “great power” status that Russia lost.

“There are still elements of autocracy, of authoritarianism” in Russia today, he tells TIME. “But I’ll say this. The manual control of authoritarianism was also needed to overcome the situation that our friends, our former friends and allies, created for Russia by pushing us out of geopolitics.”

MORE: Russia’s fifth column

The new East-West divide does evoke a sense of foreboding in Gorbachev. In particular Putin’s recent warnings that Russia is a “nuclear power,” and that foreigners would be wise “not to mess with us,” all feel like reminders of the arms race that kept the world on the edge of a catastrophic war as Gorbachev climbed the ladder of the Soviet Communist Party to become its last General Secretary. “People are talking again not only about a new Cold War but a hot one,” he says. “It’s as if a time of great troubles has arrived. The world is roiling.”

But that does not mean that Putin should back down in the face of Western sanctions. The man who pursued reforms at home and peace talks with the West in the late 1980s now feels it must be the Americans who learn a sense of humility toward Russia and stop resisting its rightful role as a global power. “It’s hard to belittle the Russians,” says Gorbachev. “We know our worth.” And if the U.S. does start to seek a new thaw in relations with Russia, he has a fresh bit of advice to offer Putin going forward: “I learned that you can listen to the Americans, but you cannot trust them,” he says. “When they get an idea to do something, they’ll turn the world onto a different axis to get it done.”

Still, as our interview winds down, Gorbachev seems to snap back into the mode of reconciliation that won him the Nobel Peace Prize a quarter century ago. “We have to return to dialogue. We have to stop this process,” he says warily. “We have to return to what we started with at the end of the Cold War.” But so far, he admits, the world is moving in the opposite direction.

Read next: Exclusive: Putin Cut Ukraine Criticism From Speech Ahead of Peace Talks

TIME europe

CIA Torture Report Creates Few Ripples Across the Pond

The Senate's revelations don't pose much risk of a rupture in transatlantic ties

Europe wasn’t exactly silent. But considering the scale of the abuses that the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee revealed on Tuesday in its report on CIA torture, one might have expected a bit more outrage from the leaders of the Old World.

Instead, the most common reaction was to praise the report as a sign of American transparency and accountability—two of the values meant to bind the West together—while many European statesmen have so far avoided saying anything at all.

That includes the leaders of France and Germany, who made no public reaction in the 24 hours that followed the report’s release. British Prime Minister David Cameron only mentioned it while on a visit to Turkey on Wednesday when a reporter asked him for a response. “I’m satisfied that our system is dealing with all of these issues,” Cameron said. The practice of torture, he confidently added, is “wrong.”

The most prominent sign of European contrition came from Poland, whose former President finally admitted during a press conference on Wednesday that his country hosted one of the CIA’s “black sites,” or secret prisons, where the abuse of detainees occurred. The U.S. had asked Poland “to find a quiet place, where effective measures could be taken to obtain information,” said Alexander Kwasniewski, who served as President from 1995 to 2005. Poland had consented to the request, he added, without knowing that the “quiet place” could be used for torture. He did not clarify the year when the facility was shut down.

But the prevailing sentiment among Europe-watchers was that these revelations were considered old news. “All of this was ten years ago,” explains Constanze Stelzenmueller, an expert on European politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. “What’s striking is that the Americans are now really trying to do a reasonably honest and non-partisan accounting of what happened.”

That American admission of guilt, and the integrity it required, did not go unnoticed even in some of the most damning editorials published in the mainstream European press. “The United States makes mistakes, sometimes terrible ones,” read an editorial in Der Spiegel, Germany’s leading newsmagazine. “But it has the strength to acknowledge it and learn from it.”

The muted reaction from European leaders, says Stelzenmueller, is perhaps best explained by the dilemma this issue presents. If one of them praises the report’s transparency, they could be perceived as downplaying the gravity of the crimes committed in the execution of the war on terror. If one of them condemns those crimes, they will almost certainly face questions about their own country’s complicity, if not also its direct involvement, in torture and illegal detention. “The risk of the follow-up question is in any case greater than the political gains,” Stelzenmueller says.

But that did not stop some European politicians from using the report as political ammunition. In Germany, the co-chairman of the opposition Left Party, Bernd Riexinger, called for Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to resign over the revelations. He also demanded Berlin rethink its cooperation with the U.S. on matters of intelligence. “I see no basis for cooperation with torturers,” Riexinger, whose party controls about 10% of the seats in the German parliament, told the Handelsblatt newspaper.

The Foreign Minister, who also held the position from 2005 to 2009, did not deign to respond to the remarks, though he did issue one of the harsher condemnations against the CIA’s torture practices to issue from the European leadership.

“What was then considered right and done in the fight against Islamic terrorism was unacceptable and a serious mistake,” Steinmeier told the German daily Bild, adding that the CIA’s activities amounted to a “gross violation of our liberal, democratic values.”

But experts still saw no real chance of the report forcing Berlin or any other major European power to question their transatlantic ties. The reason, says Joerg Forbrig, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, has to do with the ongoing standoff with Russia over Ukraine, which has urged the West to band together against what they perceive as a common threat to their security.

“The key ingredient to any successful Russia policy is Western unity,” he says. And as German Chancellor Angela Merkel pursues an ever tougher line against Moscow, “She needs to rally the Europeans, and she needs to make sure the coordination with the Americans remains intact.” So if the White House was expecting the Senate report to freeze relations across the Atlantic, it can probably breathe a sigh of relief.

Read next: Here’s What the CIA Actually Did in Interrogations

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