German leaders court migrants from Russia ahead of election

May 17, 2017

As Germany gears up for a general election this fall, politicians are reaching out to migrants from Russia in an effort to tap what is seen as a long-neglected group of voters

BERLIN — As Germany gears up for a general election in September, politicians are reaching out to migrants from Russia in an effort to tap what is seen as a long-neglected group of voters.

Chancellor Angela Merkel was hosting a private reception Wednesday for representatives of ethnic Germans who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, particularly from the late 1980s onward.

It is the first such meeting between Merkel and members of the Russlanddeutsche, or Russian-Germans, in recent years, said her spokesman. Merkel, who is running for a fourth term on Sept. 24, speaks fluent Russian.

The arrival of some 2.2 million Russlanddeutsche over the past 30 years tested the country's ability to assimilate large numbers of migrants, with mixed success.

"This is a noteworthy group within the German population," Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, told reporters in Berlin ahead of the meeting. "Where did integration work, where is it still lacking? Those are possible questions for this conversation."

The Christian Social Union, Merkel's conservative allies in Bavaria, and the nationalist Alternative for Germany party, have already put up online ads and posters targeting Russian-speaking voters in Germany. Senior members of both parties have also visited Moscow to meet Russian officials, whose conservative views are shared by many Russian speakers in Germany.

German officials have expressed concern that Russia might try to influence Germany's election, including through misinformation in Russian-language media.

One oft-cited case involved the alleged kidnapping and rape of a teenage girl in Germany early last year that sparked outrage among the Russian-German community. Police concluded that the incident hadn't happened the way it was reported in Russian-language media and German officials have cited it as an example of what is perceived to be a "propaganda war" waged by the Kremlin.

"The Lisa case showed that this group, or parts of this population group, is very open to disinformation that, sadly in this case, came from Russia," said Seibert. "That certainly says nothing about the entire group of people originating from Russia, or the Russlanddeutsche."

Hartmut Koschyk, the German government's point man for relations with national minorities, said Wednesday's meeting would also address financial support, cultural and educational issues, as well as the role that Russlanddeutsche might play in Germany's relations with Russia.

Deutsche Welle, a broadcaster funded by the German government, is for the first time showing political debates with candidates of Russian origin in the run-up to the general election.