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PEGIDA's Russian ties

Roman Goncharenko / kms
November 22, 2015

Whether with Russian flags, T-shirts or calls of help to President Vladimir Putin, the anti-Islam PEGIDA movement in Dresden is not just xenophobic - it's also friendly toward Russia. But to what extent? DW takes a look.

Deutschland Russische Fahne bei Pegida-Demonstration in Dresden
Image: DW/R. Goncharenko

The square in front of Dresden's famous opera house - the Semperoper - was full. Three days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, the regular Monday event saw 10,000 people come to protest the German government's refugee policies. That's a few more thousand that the week before, but only half as many as during PEGIDA's high point in January in the wake of the "Charlie Hebdo" attacks.

Supporters of the "Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West" movement - known as PEGIDA - feel validated by the terrorist attacks and have connected them to the many refugees in Germany. They're calling for a halt to Germany's welcoming refugee policy. And they're also calling for a new government.

Old men with Russian flags

"Merkel must go," the demonstrators - primarily male - grumbled before the Baroque backdrop of Saxony's capital. As protesters shouted their cries of hate into the evening sky, flags waved over the square. Many of them were German, but about half a dozen were Russian.

One gray-haired man in his 60s carried a particularly large flag. He said he wants a policy of detente toward Moscow, and that he is scared of a war between Russia and the US. He likes Russian President Vladimir Putin, because he's a "doer" and "takes action, while our politicians just talk."

Deutschland Christian Demuth
'Putin is a role model for many right-wingers in Europe': DemuthImage: DW/R. Goncharenko

The man has never met Putin personally, but his boss did once - back when East Germany still existed, he told DW, while refusing to give his name. Putin worked as a KGB officer in Dresden during the 1980s.

Experts, like the Dresden political scientist Christian Demuth, haven't ruled out the fact that "many people" at the PEGIDA demonstrations "had specific roles in the East German regime, in the Stasi or the Socialist Unity Party (SED)." However, he notes that this is a hypothesis.

What is true is that most of the people carrying Russian flags at the PEGIDA marches are older men.

'Help us, Putin'

Since its emergence in October 2014, PEGIDA has been Islamophobic, xenophobic and, also, pro-Russian. One of working points is a call for the "immediate normalization of Germany's relationship with the Russian Federation and the end of any type of war mongering." In February, one woman was introduced at the Monday-night gathering as "Anastasia from Russia." She was campaigning for the recognition of the Russian annexation of Crimea and for an end to Western sanctions.

PEGIDA-founder Lutz Bachmann also met with the members of the Night Wolves, a motorcycle gang with close ties to the Kremlin.

Dresden Pegida Demonstration Lutz Bachmann
PEGIDA leader Lutz Bachmann is an admirer of Vladimir PutinImage: Reuters/H. Hanschke

He accompanied the bikers to a wreath-laying in a Russian soldiers' cemetery in the northwestern Saxon town of Torgau. Posing behind a PEGIDA banner, he and the group had their picture taken.

More than anybody, Putin has a high regard among PEGIDA followers. Bachmann has worn a T-shirt bearing Putin's portrait to a demonstration, and it's common to hear calls like "Ship Merkel off to Siberia and Putin to Berlin" or "Help us, Putin."

GDR, anti-Americanism and Putin

The pro-Russian side of PEGIDA remains unclear even though research about the group's Islamophobic and, to some extent, anti-democratic attitudes has already been conducted. Experts told DW that three factors are driving the affinity toward Moscow: the former East Germany (GDR), anti-American sentiment and the attraction of Putin and his system of power.

"Paradoxically, the east Germans also define their image by their shared German-Russian past, even though they always wanted the Russians to leave," said historian Silke Satjukow, of the University of Magdeburg, in an interview with DW.

The image of Russia is much more positive in former East German states than in the western part of the country and the Ukrainian crisis hasn't changed this, she added.

According to her research, Germans from the former East tend to take Russia's side on the Crimea question, with Dresden historian Justus Ulbricht pointing to anti-American sentiment in the region.

"Being pro-Russia means being anti-US," said Ulbricht, who used to moderate town hall discussions with PEGIDA.

Right-wing radicals for Putin

This is something that Kerstin Köditz can confirm. She belongs to the Left Party, which has the second-largest number of seats in Saxony's state parliament.

"Very few people attending PEGIDA rallies actually know about the situation in Russia," said Köditz.

"What they perceive is a strong man. They see the pictures of him, shirtless, riding a horse. Those are pictures that the PEGIDA supporters love," she added.

"Putin is a role model for many right-wingers in Europe," said political scientist Demuth, pointing in particular to the far-right National Democratic Party (NPD), which has always supported PEGIDA.

Wladimir Putin Urlaub in Sibirien 03.08.2009
PEGIDA supporters perceive Putin to be a 'strong man,' according to Köditz of the Left PartyImage: Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

The nationalist party has its stronghold in Saxony and long held seats in the state government. But it failed to reach the 5-percent threshold in the 2014 vote, falling just short at 4.9 percent.

This past spring, former NPD chairman Udo Voigt traveled to St. Petersburg to participate in a meeting of European right-wing radicals. He praised Putin's policies and spoke out against the Western sanctions.

Demuth estimates that roughly one-fifth of PEGIDA demonstrators come from the NPD.

Dresden's Russian relationship

When PEGIDA supporters demonstrate in Dresden, they're doing so in a city that has a particular relationship with Russia. They call on Putin for help just meters from the spot where the president was honored by Dresden's Semperoper Ball Association for his service to cultural exchange in 2009. Dresden, and Putin's hometown, of St. Petersburg foster a city partnership. And for Russian tourists, Dresden was particularly popular before the current political crisis.

The state-financed endowment "Russkiy Mir" has also opened its first German location in Dresden. However, the leadership of the foundation, which coordinates with the German-Russian cultural institute, has distanced itself from PEGIDA. Chairman Wolfgang Schälicke has described Bachmann as "a criminal."

Deutschland Justus Ulbricht
'Being pro-Russia means being anti-US': UlbrichtImage: DW/R. Goncharenko

The 42-year-old Bachmann has been convicted multiple times, including for theft. The state prosecutor is currently investigating him for incitement of the people.

According to Schälicke, PEGIDA is trying to exploit Russia and Putin. Schälicke's deputy, Vitaly Kolesnik, refers to it as a "provocation."

According to media reports, there are more than 15,000 Russian native speakers living in the city. In unrecorded conversations with DW, some immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Dresden appear to sympathize with PEGIDA, reporting fears of Muslim immigrants committing crimes.

But some of these "Russians" see themselves in a dilemma: PEGIDA is too radical for them. As one man in his late 30s puts it, if the movement were to come to power then they would also ask people like him "to leave the country." That's why he'd rather keep his distance from PEGIDA.

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