BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel met leaders of the three million-strong community of Germans with ties to Russia on Wednesday, amid concerns over their susceptibility to “fake news” items in the run-up to a national election in September.
German officials worry that some members of that community may be vulnerable to pro-Russian propaganda after protests erupted in January 2016 over a bogus Russian media report about the alleged rape of a 13-year Russian-German girl by a migrant.
Relations between Germany and Russia are at their lowest ebb for years due to sharp disagreements over the crises in Ukraine and Syria and Moscow’s human rights record. German intelligence agencies have also warned about Russian cyber attacks and support for far-right parties.
Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said Wednesday evening’s discussions would focus on the challenges the community faces in integrating into German life and society. Merkel herself grew up in communist East Germany and speaks fluent Russian.
The Russian community in Germany is diverse and includes ethnic Germans whose ancestors first moved to tsarist Russia, Soviet Jews granted asylum in postwar Germany and more recent arrivals.
Many Russian-Germans have traditionally supported Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats out of gratitude for the support of her predecessor Helmut Kohl, who helped large numbers of ethnic Germans leave Soviet Russia after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
But the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) - which has links to Moscow and produces campaign materials in Russian - appeals to some voters unhappy with Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open the doors to more than a million mostly Muslim migrants.
The expansion in Germany of RT and Sputnik, both Russian government-controlled media outlets, has also fueled concerns among some German politicians and officials.
NO “TROJAN HORSE”
But Heinrich Zertik, the only Russian-German member of parliament, said the concerns that his community was some kind of “Trojan horse” for Moscow were completely overblown.
He told Reuters that a study conducted last year by the liberal Boris Nemtsov Foundation showed 80 percent of Germans with a Russian background felt well integrated and 84 percent strongly supported democracy as a form of government.
He also cautioned against exaggerating the community’s reported support for the AfD.
“The electoral behavior of the Russian-Germans is very similar to that of those Germans who were born and raised here,” he said.
Germany’s political parties will be keen to court the votes of this sizeable community in the election, which Merkel’s conservatives are tipped to win with a new four-year mandate.
Thomas Krueger, who heads Germany’s BpB agency for civic education, said there were about 2.4 million Germans from Russia and other former Soviet states living in Germany today, plus around 215,000 Jewish migrants from the former eastern bloc and some 230,000 Russians without an ethnic German background.
Some of those Germans are descendants of migrants who accepted an invitation in 1763 from Russia’s German-born empress, Catherine the Great, who offered them land, freedom of religion and exemptions from military service.
Large German-speaking communities developed and prospered, in areas like St. Petersburg and along the Volga river, reaching 1.2 million in a 1926 Soviet census and over 2 million by 1989.
But ethnic Germans, including many devout Christians, faced persecution and discrimination in Soviet times. During World War Two, hundreds of thousands were sent to forced labor camps.
Tens of thousands moved to Germany after the war, reaching a peak of 213,000 after the Cold War in 1994.
Some migrants complain that they are still treated as “Russians” in Germany. Krueger said it was critical to recognize and honor the experience of these migrants, many of whom cannot work in their professions due to strict German employment laws.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Gareth Jones