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How “Operation Liza” failed

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The failure of a recent Russian propaganda campaign in Germany tells us that Kremlin strategists know nothing about the country, nor its sizeable Russian-speaking population. Русский

Last month, the disappearance of a 13 year-old Russian girl in Berlin caused a series of scandals. When the girl, Liza, returned the day after her disappearance on 11 January, her family claimed that she had been abducted and raped by Arabs. This assertion led to demonstrations by Russian-speaking Germans, heightened interest in the story from Russian media and a verbal conflict between the German and Russian foreign ministries. Indeed, the active involvement of Kremlin media (and Russia's Channel One, in particular) in stirring up anti-migrant feeling among the German public has led to the incident being christened “Operation Liza”.

Some people believe that “Operation Liza” was a victory for Russian propaganda — a successful attack on Germany as part of its “hybrid war”. In the end, between 10,000-20,000 Russian-speaking residents came out to protest in a dozen towns across Germany, even demanding the resignation of Angela Merkel. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Believing in the success of this action only amplifies “Operation Liza” further

But believing in the success of this action only amplifies “Operation Liza” further: the story may have been a lie, but it demoralised the enemy and caused it palpable damage. There is no more truth in this claim than Russian television’s initial story of the abduction and rape of a “Russian German” girl in Berlin. From the very beginning, the police denied that Liza was abducted and raped. Later it came out that Liza was afraid to come home because of problems at school. She stayed at a friend's place.

In principle, Russian propaganda is one of the factors that can influence the electoral preferences of Germany’s Russian-speaking citizens. But still, there are more grounds to consider “Operation Liza” a failure rather than a success.

An own goal

The events of New Year’s Eve in Cologne have resonated throughout Germany. Clearly, the German police were overwhelmed and lost control of the situation. Public attitudes to asylum seekers and the German government’s immigration policies have hardened and the future of Merkel’s chancellorship is under discussion.

The “Liza” incident, on the other hand, caused no controversy and raised no questions about police or government competence. It did, however, focus attention on the tactics of the Russian propaganda machine, triggering innumerable reports on the subject, even in local papers. Suddenly, small towns in West Germany felt like battlefields in the “hybrid war”.   

The involvement of Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in the “operation” turned it into an event of national importance. It became clear that this was not just an initiative of local Berlin far-right groups and Russian state television. Lavrov’s statement on 26 January, and particularly his words “our Liza”, enraged Germany’s foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (who is normally well disposed to Russia) to the extent that he responded with an unusually strong statement.

26 January 2016, Moscow: Sergei Lavrov holds a press conference looking back on 2015. (c) Ivan Sekretarev / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.The German press took Lavrov’s words as interference in Germany’s internal affairs and an attempt to weaken Merkel. To refer to a German citizen as “our Liza” sounded like an infringement of German sovereignty. Newspapers both large and small began to write about Russia’s “hybrid war”.

Today, the German press is writing a lot about the “need for dialogue”, and a lot more about aggression

Strictly speaking, after the appearance of Lavrov in this story German media changed their attitude to Russia. Today, the German press is writing a lot about the “need for dialogue”, and a lot more about aggression, demanding the government to be decisive and harsh in its dealings with Russia. The Bavarian prime minister Horst Seehofer’s visit to Moscow in February met with general scorn and disapproval (when economics minister Sigmar Gabriel visited Russia in October, he didn’t receive such unanimous criticism).

Russia attacks, Germany defends

“Hybrid war” has become a cliché of late: it is even used on German public television, which has — until recently — taken a softer line on the Putin administration than the press.

Even before “Operation Liza”, German news coverage towards Russia was becoming more critical: a very negative documentary about Putin appeared on German TV in December, talk shows now prefer to book critics of the Kremlin and a Norwegian serial about an imaginary occupation of Norway by Russia is about to be shown on TV.

In the aftermath of “Operation Liza”, people in Germany have started to realise that it is important to defend freedom of speech from Russia’s Channel One, and not the channel’s freedom to say whatever it likes

“Operation Liza” has also affected public perception of the New Year’s Eve events in Cologne. Articles have appeared claiming that the sexual attacks there, and similar incidents in other cities, were part of a planned provocation action, carried out perhaps by Syrian security services friendly to Putin.

After the coordinated “protests” by Russian speakers across Germany and the Russian government’s blatant attempt to exploit the immigrant issue, this idea no longer seems so far-fetched. But while “Operation Liza” was supposed to intensify the effect of the events in Cologne, in practice it has diverted attention from them.

Cologne, January 2016. (c) Martin Meissner / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.In the aftermath of “Operation Liza”, people in Germany have started to realise that it is important to defend freedom of speech from Russia’s Channel One, and not the channel’s freedom to say whatever it likes. German and Russian citizens usually don’t get this nuance.

There are legal consequences on the way, too: at the instigation of lawyer Martin Luithle, Berlin’s public prosecutor has begun an investigation into Ivan Blagoi, the Channel One correspondent who reported the story, for incitement to hatred. A hack on Luithle’s site and threats against his life have only strengthened the public support he has won for this initiative.

In general, it has become clear that the more barefaced Russia’s aggression, the greater Germany’s determination to defend itself. But the Kremlin’s biggest mistake was, of course, the idea to destabilise Germany with the help of its multi-million “Russian” diaspora. Evidently, the Kremlin (as well as state television, the foreign ministry and presidential administration) believed that Germany’s Russian-speaking population felt like outsiders here — dissatisfied with their situation, subject to discrimination and susceptible to the “Russian world” ideology.

This is clearly incorrect. Although people from the former USSR are the largest diaspora in Germany today, it is one that exerts its influence on both public life and election results.

So are they Russian or German?

Strictly speaking, there is no unified Russian-speaking community in Germany. There are several different groups of different size and different degrees of influence. Even their overall number can only be roughly estimated; statistics don’t give a clear picture.

Current population estimates range from three to six million (with the latter figure nearer the truth). Since the early 1990s, 2.5m citizens of German extraction have come to Germany from the former USSR, as well as 250,000 people of Jewish extraction, also with their families. The former were assigned “resettler” status and granted citizenship upon arrival; the latter – “quota refugees” (Kontingentflüchtling) with permanent residence rights. Both groups were followed by relatives, who were given residence rights but no specific status, and were therefore not included in the statistics.

27 January: "Russian Germans" come out to protest after the scandal involving the disappearance of a Russian German girl in Berlin. CC Youtube / Channel One. Some rights reserved.Both immigrant groups included a higher than average proportion of children and young people; these people have since had children of their own, some now adults. Numerous German citizens have Russian-speaking wives and husbands, and there are also groups such as labour migrants, students, academics and Russian-speaking citizens of the Baltic states and Israel.

Strictly speaking, there is no unified Russian-speaking community in Germany. There are several different groups of different size and different degrees of influence

Liza comes from a family of “ethnic Germans”. When people talk about “Russians” in Germany, this is the group they usually have in mind. This is, however, a big mistake: Germans from the former USSR don’t usually think of themselves as Russian. On the contrary, ethnic Germans are often ardent supporters of the concept of “blood and soil”. During the Cold War, West Germany offered an open invitation to all Germans from Eastern bloc countries who were suffering discrimination in retaliation for crimes such as alleged collaboration with the Third Reich during the Second World War.

Other population groups suffered similar discrimination on the same grounds in the Soviet Union: Crimean Tatars and Karaites; most of the population of the North Caucasus; Soviet Bulgarians and Greeks – but no invitation was extended to them.    

On grounds of blood

Soviet Germans were fully aware that they were being given entry to Germany on grounds of “blood”, not “‘discrimination”. Meanwhile, the West German authorities loved to remind people that this invitation was dictated by purely humanitarian considerations.

This allowed West Germany to put pressure on socialist governments and demand they allow “ethnic Germans” to emigrate at little risk to themselves. The USA demanded Jews be allowed to emigrate in the same way. In other words, certain groups of Soviet citizens acquired foreign protectors. Now, Russia is trying to use the same instrument against the west — although, of course, no mass “repatriation” is envisaged.

Until the 1990s, “ethnic Germans” mainly came from Poland and Romania — in certain cases, West Germany even paid for their exit. Many, of course, spoke German well and integrated rapidly; their immigration was barely noticeable.

German Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Adam Lederer / Flickr. Some rights reserved.With Soviet Germans, it was different. Their links to their historic homeland were weaker than ethnic Germans in other socialist states, if they existed at all; they were assimilated in the Soviet Union to a higher extent and their German was not as good. The Soviet German national movement was mainly focused on re-establishing an autonomous self-governing territory in the Volga region and achieving recognition as a native people of Russia and the USSR.

The idea of “repatriation” came from West Germany, and with it came a concentration on ethnicity, the habit of acquiring a powerful foreign protector, and the idea that Germany was for Germans. Only people who “professed a commitment to Germanhood” (Bekenntnis zum Deutschtum) had a right to repatriation.

With Soviet Germans, it was different. Their links to their historic homeland were weaker than ethnic Germans in other socialist states, if they existed at all

Not many people in Germany today would connect Bekenntnis zum Deutschtum with anything more than a dark past. In the bureaucratic reality, this commitment consists of an entry in a Soviet passport or birth certificate and knowledge of German, at least on a basic level.

So, knowledge of Russian is seen by many “Russian Germans” as sufficient grounds for protection by Russia, even if they don’t see themselves as either Russian, or part of the “Russian world”.

Repatriates and xenophobia: who hates whom

The entire political agenda of West Germany, both before and after re-unification, said to Soviet Germans: Germany is your country, you are needed here. The reality was somewhat different. Repatriates received support and preferential treatment from the authorities, but encountered resentment and xenophobia from their fellow citizens. 

It was only to be expected that the West German public saw these Russian-speaking repatriates as Russians, not Germans — no matter how hard they clung to their German identity. The repatriation took place en masse, so the repatriates were housed cheek by jowl in former NATO bases and apartment blocks in the former GDR.

The reputation of the “Russian Germans” was a lot worse than they deserved statistically

These “ghettoes” did nothing to improve the popularity of “Russian Germans”. Many came from rural areas and small provincial towns, which also had an effect on “ghetto” life, just as the existence of the “ghetto” had on the life of the local population.

For instance, the town of Lahr, in Baden-Württemberg, with a mere 40,000 residents, received 10,000 repatriates, which didn’t exactly please everyone. The newcomers, especially the young ones, also brought a higher crime rate with them, not to mention problems with drink and drugs. 

The town of Lahr, Badem-Württemburg, took 10,000 Russian German resettlers. .CC BY-SA 2.0 Martin Wehrle / Flickr. Some rights reserved.But the reputation of the “Russian Germans” was a lot worse than they deserved statistically — they were labelled in the same way as migrants from the Middle East are today: criminal tendencies, an unwillingness to work, an inability to integrate.

The repatriates were equally unpopular among other immigrants, not least because of their privileged position. Unlike other immigrants, they were immediately entitled to German citizenship, and unlike most others they could also retain their original citizenship.

This distinction was particularly strong in the years before Germany liberalised its nationality laws at the start of the 2000s. Turkish communities, for example, who had settled decades earlier, felt pretty insulted by it all. In industrial cities where Turkish families and Russian speakers were crammed together in the same housing estates, this tension reached the point of fights between ethnic street gangs.

Resettlers have become part of German society and are, on the whole, well settled

By the mid 2000s, this had come to an end. The influx of resettlers dropped sharply, and indicators of crime, level of education and unemployment were no longer so different from Germany’s average. At the same time, people — society, the press and sociologists — lost interest in “Russian Germans”. It was decided that integration was complete.

This is true for the most part. Resettlers have become part of German society and are, on the whole, well settled. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they’ve become the same as other residents of Germany, or that you can ignore the differences. “Operation Liza” highlighted this fact and prompted a renewed interest in “Russian Germans”. 

How the “Russian Germans” vote 

The main difference between the “repatriates” and “everyone else in Germany” is their voting habits. The absolute majority of “repatriates” (and naturalised residents from the former USSR) generally support the conservative Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) bloc.

One reason for this is gratitude for the repatriation, which the Russian Germans connect to the government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl (1982-1998) — although this idea is as much a myth as the criminal tendencies and laziness of the “Russian Germans”. In fact, Kohl’s government tried to set a ceiling of 200,000 repatriates a year, and spent millions on halting the influx of immigration, including funding social programmes and housing projects for Germans back in Kazakhstan and Russia. But that doesn’t stop many Russian Germans seeing Kohl as their Moses figure. 

The more important reason for Russian Germans voting CDU/CSU is, however, their conservative views. In the early 2000s, polls showed that 73 percent of naturalised citizens from the former USSR supported CDU/CSU. This support has gradually declined, but at the 2013 elections it still stood at above 60 percent. At the same time, this group is the least politically active among both immigrants and naturalised citizens. 

The "Russian German" protesters even demanded the resignation of Angela Merkel. (c) Burhan Ozbilici / AP / Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Until recently, CDU/CSU represented practically the entirety of Germany’s right-of-centre political spectrum, from moderate centrists to expressive populists. The Christian Social Union is local to Bavaria, and has not changed in any way. But the CDU, which operates in the rest of the country, has changed since Angela Merkel’s election as party chairperson in 2005, losing its populist tinge. Prominent politicians from the 1990s such as Roland Koch and Friedrich Merz, renowned for their inflammatory anti-migrant speeches, have left the stage. After several well-known centrist politicians came out as gay, no major political party can afford to be associated with any hint of homophobia. 

On this issue, the conservative agenda has focused on achieving equal rights without changing the signposts — for the CDU, only a union between man and woman can be called marriage. All this is nevertheless completely revolutionary to former Soviet citizens, whose political sympathies gravitate to the furthest point of right-wing politics. 

The more important reason for Russian Germans voting CDU/CSU is their conservative views

The CDU is also much more critical of Russia than the Social Democratic party, its coalition partner. At the same time, immigrants from the former Soviet Union are, broadly speaking, supportive of Russia in general and Putin in particular. 

This support is connected to the influence of Russian media, and especially TV. Many former Soviet citizens living in Germany watch Russian television, particularly the older generation whose knowledge of German is limited. It is also connected to these constituencies’ support for “traditional values” (which Putin purports to protect), their pride in Russia as a reaction to the xenophobia they face themselves, and their own xenophobia, which characterises most citizens of the former USSR.

If not Merkel, then who?   

This does not mean that “Russian Germans” are a kind of fifth column inside Germany, ready to drop everything to defend Russia’s interests at Putin’s call. But it does mean that, at the very least, the party they have traditionally supported no longer shares their views to the same extent. The question is: how many “Russian Germans” will desert the CDU, and who they will vote for instead? 

Now and then, far-right parties and movements, sponsored by the Kremlin, emerge among this population group — although none of them have ever had any election success and there is little likelihood that they ever will. The neo-Nazi NPD is keen to recruit “Russian Germans” to their cause, and it was at an NPD rally that young Liza’s aunt made her anti-immigrant accusations (Channel One, of course, claimed it was a spontaneous protest by concerned Russian-speaking citizens). But the party's electoral prospects are in any case minimal, and it is too radical for conservative “Russian German” voters.

The populist right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) is another matter. It calls for a ban on further acceptance of refugees and immigration in general, although it has a friendly enough attitude to Russia. Recent polls suggest that up to 12 percent of the German electorate would vote for AfD if an election were to be held now.

This does not mean that “Russian Germans” are a kind of fifth column inside Germany, ready to drop everything to defend Russia’s interests at Putin’s call

Some “Russian Germans” may well transfer their allegiance to AfD, and others to the left-wing populist Die Linke. This fairly young party was set up as an alliance between former communists from East Germany and populists who had split with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), led by Oskar Lafontaine, once a rival to Gerhard Schröder for leadership of the party. Die Linke won 8.6 percent of the vote in the 2013 elections and became the third largest fraction in the Bundestag. Its attitude to immigration is rather unclear: its statements on the issue are vaguely in favour, but it prefers not to comment on it.

The party is, however, implacable in its opposition to Angela Merkel, the USA and the EU, and favours both Russia and Putin. Indeed, Die Linke’s support for Russian politics is one of the central elements of its political agenda. It is symptomatic that, as the furore around “Operation Liza” grew, Liza’s family chose Alexei Danckwardt as their lawyer. Danckwardt is a Die Linke member of Leipzig’s Municipal Council, and a former Soviet citizen of German extraction. People used to think that the repatriates were bitterly anti-Communist, but this is evidently no longer the case. 

The successors of the communists in Die Linke have become almost indistinguishable from the right wing populists, while many Germans (and not just repatriates) regard their conservative leader Angela Merkel as a dangerous communist.

“Repatriates” account for around five percent of the German electorate, making them a significant voter group. Most of their votes have traditionally gone to the CDU, and the loss of this constituency to other parties may affect the political balance of power. Russian propaganda, on the other hand, is unlikely to rouse them into any activity that could destabilise the current situation.

The worst that could happen would be a revival of stereotypical negative attitudes towards “Russian Germans”. But Kremlin propaganda might influence their behaviour during an election — something that German politicians would do well to bear in mind.     

About the author

Nikolai Klimeniouk writes about culture and politics in Germany and Russia. He is the former editor of Forbes Russia, Moscow's Bolshoi Gorod city magazine and several other publications. Since 2014, he is a freelance writer based in Berlin writing for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and other German media.


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