Germany’s political landscape has been rocked by the emergence of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. On September 24, the party won the third-largest share of seats in the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament. The AfD’s surge in national politics can in part be attributed to its success in courting Russian-Germans, ethnic Germans that have immigrated from the former USSR in the years since 1991.
Russian Germans, aided by German government repatriation programs during 1990s and 2000s, now make up nearly 5 percent of the population of Germany. AfD leaders have acknowledged that their Eurosceptic, anti-immigration platform has often resonated most strongly with those who 30 years ago had just arrived in Germany themselves. In a televised debate the night after the election, AfD Party Whip Jörg Meuthen instructed mainstream politicians to “take a look at who really votes for the AfD and where we have the strongest numbers. 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.”
AfD targeted Russian-German voters with Russian-language campaign materials and by running Russian-German candidates. Waldemar Birkle, an immigrant from Kazakhstan and an AfD candidate for the southwestern city of Pforzheim told the Russian-speaking press that “[immigration]is a big problem because Angela Merkel opened the door to our country; she basically opened the borders, and people came here alien to our culture.”
The party’s impact is aided by Russian news services that provide a platform for the party’s views and stories that heighten the party’s appeal. Last year, Kremlin-backed media outlets published a story about a Russian-German teenager named Lisa who was raped by an Arab migrant. The story turned out to be fake, but it sparked protests in the Russian-German community and led to a surge of interest in the AfD.
Some Russian-Germans are hesitant to be linked to the AfD. In the days leading up to the election, fifteen Russian-German social organizations issued an open letter to the German public and media to express their frustration with being stereotyped. The press release complains about the “one-sided portrayal” of Russian-Germans in the lead-up to the election, declaring, “We are not the AfD, not the CDU, and not Putin’s fifth column! We are individuals like all other citizens of our country!”
The AfD’s anti-immigration message seems to resonate most strongly with the older, immigrant Russian-Germans who came to Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Birkle, himself a first-generation immigrant, put this anxiety into words, saying, “We came home to the country of our ancestors for one single reason—to preserve our identity and our culture, so we could remain German. We’re not racist, but if we’re honest with ourselves, when we go through the city in Pforzheim, there are barely any Germans left.”
Electoral results show that many in his district share his fears. Although Birkle did not win his Pforzheim constituency seat, the AfD came in second place.