At a time when relations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are especially tense, the Russian government flirts with the German far right. A parliamentary delegation from Alternative for Germany (AfD), the country’s third political force, met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday in Moscow. Timing the visit of members of the first opposition party in the Bundestag is important now that ties between Berlin and Moscow are increasingly deteriorated by the poisoning this summer in Siberia of prominent opposition member Alexei Navalni, who is recovering in Germany, and the harsh German condemnation of the case, which has led to new sanctions against senior Russian officials.
The meeting with the far-right German parliamentarians is for Moscow a “symmetrical measure” due to the meetings of the German government leadership with the opposition Navalni, who was treated in a Berlin hospital, points out Anton Shekhovtsov, professor at the University of Vienna and expert in European far-right parties, which has thoroughly studied its relationship with Russia. The “reciprocal sanctions” that Moscow has announced and that it will apply against German and French officials, who led the request for sanctions against Russia for the attack on Navalni, of which the opponent directly accuses Russian President Vladimir Putin, will soon take shape.
The Russian government has not hesitated to woo the German populists in a dialectic aimed directly at Merkel and her party. Relations between Moscow and Berlin “must be rethought and restarted” now that “serious problems” have accumulated, said the Russian Foreign Minister during his meeting with AfD parliamentarians, including his co-president, Tino Chrupalla, in a visit that the Kremlin has considered “very important” and that is the most important reception that the anti-immigration party has staged so far in Moscow. Lavrov also accused the German government of complicating the visit, which stemmed from an invitation from the state Duma (Parliament).
The Kremlin is upset that Merkel has met with Navalni in the hospital and differentiates between the opponent, one of the most visible critics of Putin in the West but without a parliamentary presence (in part due to the vetoes to concur imposed by the authorities), and AfD, which has 89 of the 709 seats in the Bundestag, although it has seen its popularity fall as citizens satisfied by Angela Merkel’s handling of the health crisis.
Alternative for Germany has always rejected the sanctions that the European Union imposed on Russia for annexing the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, and was the only party in the Bundestag that avoided condemning the poisoning of Navalni last September, in an urgent debate on the case. This Tuesday his envoys have again insisted that the sanctions against Moscow are “terrible for the economy of both countries.”
Following the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Donbas conflict in Ukraine in 2014, the balance in the relationship between Merkel and Putin faltered, but remained. The Chancellor supported the sanctions against Moscow, although she did not break ties with the Kremlin and, despite European and American criticism, she has maintained the project to build the second gas pipeline through the Baltic (Nordsream 2), to guarantee the supply of Russian gas to Germany without going through intermediate areas, such as Ukraine. But after other episodes, like the revelations that a Russian spy would be behind the hack to the Bundestag in 2015, has raised the tone of its protest.
Courtship to the far right
The Kremlin is no newbie to courting right-wing populists. And the AfD visit to Moscow – in the midst of a global pandemic and with restricted entries for EU citizens to the Eurasian country, except for special permits – also “sends a message of support to the European extreme right”, believes Professor Shekhovtsov. “It does not necessarily have to be sincere support, because when it comes to financial assistance, the Russians are quite cautious, but it is a message of rhetorical support because Russia is positioning itself as a populist force,” says the researcher on far-right parties. .
Although he is now in rather low hours because he prefers to bet on Emmanuel Macron, the Kremlin has had a very good relationship with Marine Le Pen and her National Regrouping. Also with the Italian Matteo Salvini and the League. Political influence activities of the Government or members of the Kremlin orbit with which not a few analysts and researchers believe that Moscow also seeks to destabilize the European Union.
Russia does not hide that it is trying to offer an ideological alternative to so-called Western liberalism and presents itself as the defender of traditional and Christian values and family, as a global populist force. But the evidence shows that the ideology is actually pragmatism and that the Kremlin is willing to reject these positions if it has a chance to cooperate beneficially with liberal-democratic governments.