Marcus Pretzell is waiting. He's a member of the European Parliament with the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany (AfD) and he's sitting on the podium at the Yalta International Economic Forum, an event hosted by the Russian government at a resort on the occupied Crimean Peninsula. Pretzell has been seated directly next to the moderator. The AfD politician, who is head of the party in North Rhine-Westphalia, its largest state chapter, is the guest of honor from Europe. His presence is intended to send the message that Russia is not internationally isolated.
For the hour and a half during which Pretzell sits on the stage, he's little more than a wallflower. Through his headphones, he listens to an interpreter translating the words of an illustrious group of top Russian officials who few German politicians would be keen to share a stage with. Five of the eight panel members are on the sanctions lists of the European Union and the United States for their involvement in the illegal annexation of Crimea. They include men like Sergey Aksyonov, prime minister of Crimea, and Yevgeny Bushmin, a close confidant of the Kremlin leadership.
The panel host then finally asks Pretzell to speak. "We at Alternative for Germany represent not only a threat to the Ukrainian government, but also to the German government," he proudly announces. The audience applauds. He then goes on to say that good economic relations with Russia "are in the interest of the German people" and that sanctions should be lifted immediately. The applause grows. In Russia, the moderator adds, people have the impression that the German people are of the same opinion as Pretzell. "Marcus, you have made 140 million new friends today."
A Natural Partner
Russia also has many friends in the AfD. Leading party officials are pursuing a clearly pro-Russian path and are trying to establish tight relations with people in President Vladimir Putin's circle. The right-wing populists are undeterred by the Kremlin's anti-liberal, anti-American and homophobic ideology. On the contrary: For large parts of the AfD party base, those factors appear to make Russia an attractive partner. At the same time, the AfD, with its critical stance toward the EU and NATO, also appears to be a natural partner for Putin. Now, though, the relationship is advancing past the stage of discussions and conferences: The youth wing of the AfD is forming more formal ties with the youth organization of Putin's United Russia party.
Leading AfD politicians like deputy head Alexander Gauland have pursued a pro-Russian course since the party's founding three years ago. They have accepted invitations to conferences featuring Putin's confidants and those who influence his ideology and they have forged alliances with Eastern European nationalists loyal to the Kremlin as well as with traditionally Russia-friendly right-wing populist parties in Western Europe like France's Front National and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) -- which this weekend won the first-round of Austrian presidential elections. AfD is currently planning a conference together with the Russian Embassy in Potsdam in June.
At its national party conference at the beginning of May, the AfD is expected to root its approach to Russia in its party doctrine, in the form of votes on several resolutions calling for Germany to leave NATO. Björn Höcke, a prominent member of the party's ultra-right wing, last week announced his support for the resolutions.
There is currently no proof that AfD receives financial support from Moscow. The party's treasurer, Klaus Fohrmann, categorically denies such speculation. But prior to a trio of state elections in March, the party did receive generous donations in-kind in the form of thousands of election signs and millions of copies of a free campaign newspaper promoting the AfD's anti-refugee platforms. The patron has remained anonymous, and Fohrmann concedes he cannot rule out with certainty that Russian money may have been involved.
Be that as it may, the ideological influence wielded by Putin's allies on the AfD is far more significant. Few of the Russia fans within the party have the years of political experience amassed by Gauland, who had been an influential member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union for 40 years before bolting the party. Often enough they are foreign policy neophytes like history teacher Höcke or lawyer Pretzell, who just want to dabble in global politics and don't recognize the degree to which they are playing into the hands of Putin's government.
That is especially true of the Young Alternative (JA), AfD's youth arm, which isn't shy when it comes to embracing pro-Russian circles. Even back in 2014, the JA state chapter in Lower Saxony invited senior officials from the Russian Embassy in Berlin for a meeting. An item in JA's member newsletter stated there had been agreement at the meeting that responsibility for the "disastrous escalation of the situation in Ukraine clearly lies with the scarcely forward-looking and extremely uneven EU foreign policy."
JA head Markus Frohnmaier often takes trips to regions in which NATO is considered to be an aggressor and Russia to be the last hope for a "multipolar world." In mid-October 2014, for example, he visited Belgrade, where he attended the celebrations surrounding the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Yugoslavia from its German occupiers. Putin also attended, and to welcome him, the city had been decked out in pro-Russian signs like, "Putin is a Serb." There, Frohnmaier met up with members of the far-right, critics of the United States and Kremlin allies. Last summer, he took a trip to contested eastern Ukraine to visit the "Donbass Forum," where Frohnmaier discussed "Peace for Ukraine" together with Manuel Ochsenreiter, a prominent right-wing writer with the New Right movement (a play on the New Left of the 1960s), and Jean-Luc Schaffhauser of France's Front National.
The trend continued during Frohnmaier's most recent trip to Crimea -- to a conference attended by 1,000 participants, but with only 70 foreign guests. Two were politicians with Austria's FPÖ. The Russian organizers paid for his trip to Yalta, which, he says, is "standard practice."
But the Young Alternative's most important foreign policy contact to date took place just last week. Last Wednesday afternoon, Frohnmaier and his JA co-head Sven Tritschler, sat down over a beer in Berlin. They had just had a successful meeting with a partner: Robert Schlegel, a member of the Duma, the Russian parliament, and a leading official with Putin's United Russia party. Schlegel and the JA leaders have discussed a new partnership between the Young Guard, the youth wing of Putin's party, and its counterpart in the AfD. "Euro critical and sovereigntist movements are gaining in strength across the entire European continent," says Frohnmaier, adding that it is "self-evident that these activities be pooled into a new youth network." Russia, he says, also has to be a part of it.
Putin's Young Guard already maintains alliances with partners abroad in countries like Kazakhstan and Serbia. According to its charter, its aim is the "integration of the youth into the process of building a democratic and socially just society," followed by the "conveyance of patriotism and national pride."
Anti-Western Sentiment and Homophobia
In practice, however, the 150,000-member strong Youth Guard is better known for its anti-Western and homophobic propaganda. In February in Moscow, on the occasion of the US Presidents' Day holiday, they mounted a cartoon exhibition on the "crimes" committed by American leaders. Further areas of focus of the Young Guard include the defamation of opposition politicians as "lesbians, gays and transvestites." Last year, they even collected signatures opposing an online self-help group for gay and lesbian youth.
Schlegel, himself a former spokesman for Nashi, a now defunct Kremlin-aligned youth movement, travels around the world on behalf of Putin's party and he is a popular guest in places like Belgrade and Damascus. Only in Berlin, Schlegel laments, has political access become difficult. He says the situation has worsened, particularly since the death of Philipp Missfelder, the late parliamentarian from Merkel's conservative CDU who had focused on foreign policy. Missfelder died unexpectedly in July at the age of 35 after suffering from a pulmonary embolism. Schlegel says the politician had always been willing to listen to him.
Fortunately for Schlegel, the Young Alternative is now standing by to provide him with a sympathetic ear. Frohnmaier is little disturbed by the Kremlin youths' ideological orientation. "Despite Western reservations about the Russian political system, it is unquestionable that President Putin and his party enjoy the support of the majority of Russians," he says. Besides, the 25-year-old adds, "our country isn't like some kindergartner in the world" -- it needs to finally "represent its vital national interests" in the foreign policy arena.
The close ties between Moscow and the AfD also run through Germany's sizeable Russian-German community. Germany is home to 2.5 million Spätaussiedler, or "late repatriates," ethnic Germans who had lived in Russia for generations, many of whom have maintained close ties to their former home country. AfD has actively courted this population, even setting up a network within the party of these so-called "Russlanddeutsche ." The strategy has borne fruit, particularly in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where the AfD garnered 42 percent of the vote in Villingen-Schwenningen and 52 percent Wertheim, both cities that are home to large populations of Russian-Germans.
Particularly interesting for Putin is the fact that many Russlanddeutsche can still vote back in their former home of Russia. Duma elections are scheduled to take place this September. Using the AfD and its youth arm, the JA, seems like an obvious way to approach these voters.
The German right-wing populists also maintain contacts to representatives of the Russian and Serbian Orthodox churches. They know each other from having attended protests against the education curriculum plans promoted by the the state government of Baden-Württemberg, led by a coalition pairing the Green Party and the Social Democrats. They also attended the "March for Life" demonstrations against abortion together. "Many orthodox values have no resonance within the old parties," Frohnmaier explains. "We give these people a new political home."
AfD's deputy party head Gauland says he has "no reservations whatsoever" about the a possible alliance between JA and the Putin youth. After all, he himself traveled to Russia at the end of 2015 on a trip paid for by the St. Basil the Great Charitable Foundation, which is financially backed by a Putin-loyal oligarch. In St. Petersburg, Gauland met with members of the Duma, a personal advisor to Putin and Alexander Dugin, a neo-fascist, anti-Western ideologist whose ideas are taken seriously by the Kremlin. Gauland says Dugin is a pleasant conversation partner. Too bad, the politician says, that Dugin would like to restore czarist traditions.
Gauland also knew of Pretzell's plan to travel to the conference in Crimea and even wished his colleague "good luck." After all, he says, "Crimea was already Russian once and now it is Russian again. And it will never return to Ukraine." Germany must accept this reality, he adds.
The Coming Foreign Policy Battle
Understandably enough, Andriy Melnyk, Ukraine's ambassador to Germany, has a different view. He accuses Pretzell and Frohnmaier of having traveled into the region without Ukrainian permission. "Illegal entry into Crimea is no misdemeanor -- it's a serious crime," says Melnyk. Pretzell entered Crimea on a Russian visa -- the purpose of his visit was listed as "research and technical relations." Because Germany, too, considers the annexation of Crimea to be a violation of international law, Melnyk filed a protest note with the German Foreign Ministry, aksing Berlin to "undertake all necessary measures to prevent that kind of violation of Ukrainian laws in the future." The AfD politicians are facing a possible five-year ban on entering Ukraine.
But not all members of the AfD leadership are pleased with the activities of the pro-Russian faction. At the party conference this weekend in Stuttgart, foreign policy is expected to be one of the more divisive issues. "In my assessment, AfD's approach to Russia is too imbalanced at the moment," says Alice Weidel, a member of the party's national executive committee. "It's important to me that the party isn't forced into a one-sided strategy on this issue." An economist by training, Weidel also warns against withdrawing from NATO. "We have enjoyed prosperity and peace for decades. We owe this to the Euro-Atlantic community," she says.
But Frauke Petry, head of the national party, is following a different course. In a recent letter to party members, she began paving the way for a new strategic orientation toward the east. In it, Petry writes that the party should ally with euroskeptic forces in European Parliament, also referring explicitly to the Europe of Nations and Freedom parliamentary group, which includes Front National and FPÖ among its members.
These parties all have at least one thing in common: Their friendship with Russia.