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Compatriots 2. How Kremlin organizes pro-Putin rallies in Germany and why neo-Nazis participate

The Insider continues its series of articles on how the Kremlin is spreading its influence abroad by using its loyal Russian-speaking diaspora. In early November, we covered Russian compatriots in the U.S. After February 24, their public activity virtually ceased. The situation is different in Germany. Although official Berlin unconditionally supports Kyiv, and justification of the Russian aggression is subject to criminal liability in Germany, there are quite a few defenders of the “Russian world” in the FRG. In the spring, they organized car rallies and street gatherings in support of Putin and the war, and now they are rallying against NATO and “for peace” with Russia; in fact, for stopping military aid to Kyiv. The protesters present themselves as independent activists, but, in reality, they actively cooperate with the Russian embassy and use local far-right activists as their allies.

  • “Car Rally of Shame”

  • Donbass “benefactors”

  • Alliance with the far right

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“Car Rally of Shame”

“The Russian community in Germany is the largest in Europe: about 4.5 million people in the country speak Russian, and 230,000 of them have Russian citizenship. The activity of Putin's supporters here peaked in mid-spring. Their most notable actions have been motor rallies in support of Russia and against Russophobia. The largest one was held on April 3 in Berlin, and it elicited public outrage - literally the day before the world became aware of the tragedy in Bucha. A convoy of several hundred cars - according to various estimates, there were from 400 to 700 of them - moved from a Berlin suburb and drove through the entire city, making a stop in Treptow Park, where the Soviet war memorial is located. Participants of the “car rally of shame,” as the German media called it, waved Russian and Soviet flags, played songs in Russian at full volume and shouted insults at Ukrainian refugees.

Participants of the “car rally of shame” waved Russian and Soviet flags and shouted insults at Ukrainian refugees

Formally, the event was organized by Christian (real name Igor) Fraher, the owner of an auto repair shop, a Russian and FRG citizen, and Rene Hermann, a German. Fraher is known to have arrived in Germany from Orsk 20 years ago, and Hermann had allegedly learned Russian thanks to his frequent business trips to Russia and the CIS countries. Back in early March, Hermann was featured in Russia's Channel One report: it aired a TikTok video in which he, addressing “dear Mr. Putin”, expressed support for the Russian president and regretted the position of European countries.

There have been persistent attempts to portray the Berlin rally as a grassroots initiative, but it was most likely funded by the Russian embassy, Alexei Kozlov, coordinator of human rights programs at Freie Russland Berlin, told The Insider:

“We immediately assumed that there had been some external funding, although the organizers denied it, claiming it was just their “goodwill”. The event turned out to be quite costly: there were many special flags for the car hoods, and they had to be ordered separately. In addition, there were many participants from other cities - it is clear that they were brought to Berlin and had to use some accommodation, which also required coordination and funding”.

A connection between the organizers of the rally and the Russian diplomatic mission became apparent later in April, when Fraher and Hermann were spotted at an embassy event at the Seelow Heights memorial.

In a post-rally interview, Igor-Christian Fraher complained about threats against him and insisted that the rally was not in support of the war, but rather a protest against discrimination of Germany's Russian-speaking population. However, the content that the activist has been posting on social networks speaks eloquently about his attitude toward the events in Ukraine: for example, Meduza reported that Fraher had been using his Telegram channel to urge his supporters to attack “Ukrops” and “Ukrainian streams” on social media.

Pro-Russian rallies were also held in other German cities in April, but their initiators failed to achieve the desired effect. In Hannover, Ukrainians and war opponents blocked the road in front of the convoy of cars with Russian flags and threw horse dung at the cars. In Frankfurt am Main, the authorities did not grant permission for the rally, and the organizers had to content themselves with an ordinary demonstration.

In Hannover, Ukrainians and war opponents threw horse dung at pro-Russian activists' cars

However, the key factor that cooled the ardor of Russia's supporters was the harsh reaction of the German authorities. Back in late March, criminal liability was introduced in several regions of the country for public display of the Z symbol. Using a Latin letter as a sign of approval of the aggressive war against Ukraine is now punishable by a fine or imprisonment for up to three years. Thus, a 62-year-old Hamburg resident, who glued a sheet of paper with letter Z onto the back window of his car, was fined €4,000. In Berlin, law enforcement authorities went even further and prohibited the organizers of the “Immortal Regiment” procession to use not only the letters Z and V, but also other Russian military symbols - St. George ribbons, any flags and banners, all kinds and elements of military uniforms, and military marches as a musical accompaniment.

The policy of zero tolerance for public endorsement of Russia's actions in Ukraine is bearing fruit. In October, the Lower Bavarian police searched the apartment of the scandalous blogger Yulia Prokhorova (Chernysheva). She had been posting videos on social media on a regular basis in which she glorified Russia and cheered the shelling of Ukrainian cities. Prokhorova also arranged provocations at rallies in support of Ukraine - she came there with a Russian tricolor, danced to “Kalinka” and insulted Ukrainian refugees. Now she is being investigated on suspicions of “having approved of criminal acts”. After the search, during which the police seized her smartphones and laptop, the blogger stopped posting new material. As The Insider previously reported, Yulia Prokhorova was born in the village of Bezenchuk in the Samara region. After moving to Moscow, she worked as a cashier in a Pyaterochka store and provided escort services.

Donbass “benefactors”

In recent months, the only thing left to members of the Russian diaspora has been taking to the streets with anti-government slogans, simultaneously protesting against anti-Russia sanctions, rising prices, and coronavirus restrictions. Such demonstrations gather extremely mixed crowds: pro-Putin activists find themselves in the same company with radical groups ranging from the far-left to the far-right, covid sceptics, proponents of conspiracy theories, and other marginal elements. However, it's hard to call these demonstrations numerous - several hundred to several thousand people have taken part in them in different cities, but it's no surprise for Germany, where dozens of different street rallies take place every day, Alexei Kozlov notes.

Another protest against German and NATO policies was held on December 4 in Cologne. Demonstrators marched through central streets of the city with posters calling for the lifting of sanctions against Moscow, the launch of Nord Stream 2 and an end to arms supplies to Ukraine. Under the same slogans, supporters of peace with Russia had gathered at the Cologne Cathedral in early September. At that time, Russian flags were visible in the crowd, and a fundraiser for the “defenders of Donbass” was held in parallel with the rally.

Elena Kolbasnikova at a pro-Russian rally in Cologne on September 4, 2022
Elena Kolbasnikova at a pro-Russian rally in Cologne on September 4, 2022

These rallies, as well as other pro-Russian demonstrations in Cologne after February24, were organized by the representatives of the local Russian-speaking community, activists of the military-patriotic society Pamyat, spouses Elena Kolbasnikova and Maxim Schlund. Their war justification efforts didn't go unpunished: Kolbasnikova, who had been working in home medical care, was fired back in spring, with many people calling for her deportation or prosecution. In October, Tsargrad TV channel showed a report about the married couple bringing humanitarian aid to Donbass for civilians and fighters of the self-proclaimed DNR and LNR. The “Russian Germans” did not come to eastern Ukraine on their own, but as a part of a PR campaign launched by the Putin-led All-Russian People's Front (ONF). The video showing Kolbasnikova and her associates collecting humanitarian aid for the residents of Donbass was also posted on the Facebook page of Rossotrudnichestvo, the federal agency responsible for relations with Russian compatriots abroad.

In the photos from this trip, Kolbasnikova embraces another activist from Germany - Liana Kilintz, chairwoman of the Peace Bridge - Aid to War Victims Foundation, which also delivers humanitarian aid to Donbass (in cooperation with the All-Russian People's Front).

Kilintz and Kolbasnikova embrace, surrounded by ONF activists
Kilintz and Kolbasnikova embrace, surrounded by ONF activists

Interestingly, Kilintz herself comes from the family of a GDR Ministry of State Security officer. Formerly a member of the German Party of the Left (Die Linke), she now takes part in the activities of the German Communist Party (a marginal party that has won no more than 0.1% of the vote in elections in recent years), while the Russian Union of Veterans presents her as a member of the Roter Frontkämpferbund (“Red Front”), the fighting wing of the German Communist Party that existed in 1924-1933. Her activities are not limited to transporting humanitarian goods: for example, in February 2019, together with the authorities of the so-called DNR, she organized a concert for Donbass children at the Moscow House of Nationalities. On May 9 this year, together with the Russian ambassador, Kilintz laid a wreath in front of the memorial in Treptow Park. Afterwards, she unfurled a “DNR” flag, for which she was immediately detained by the police.

Recently, Kilintz has been in trouble with the law. In September, it was reported that the Brandenburg police were investigating her foundation on suspicions of incitement to hatred and denial of genocide. The reason was a photograph on Peace Bridge's official website showing men and women bearing the Novorossiya flag and the forbidden Z symbol. The organization is registered as non-profit and exempt from German taxes, but now it risks losing this status.

Alliance with the far right

In the above-mentioned report by Tsargrad, Elena Kolbasnikova tearfully talks about Russia's imminent victory over the “Ukrainian fascists”. At the same time, the activist herself does not hesitate to cooperate with the well-known right-wing radical politician Markus Beisicht in Cologne. An Islamophobe, anti-Semite, and great admirer of Putin, he helps Kolbasnikova organize anti-NATO rallies and actively engages in pro-Kremlin propaganda online. Beisicht gave a pro-Russia speech at the May 8 rally, attended a Russia Day event, and before that, together with Kolbasnikova, was invited to the Russian Consul General in Bonn, Alexei Dronov. Moreover, responding to a local newspaper inquiry, he claimed that Dronov invited him personally. This evidences that the comrades-in-arms are acting at least with the approval of the Russian embassy in Germany. They plan to hold their next rally in front of the US airbase in Ramstein at the end of February 2023.

A piece covering Kolbasnikova's visit to the Russian Consulate General
A piece covering Kolbasnikova's visit to the Russian Consulate General

From the report on the visit is follows that Kolbasnikova visited the Russian Consulate General as a representative of Beisicht's far-right organization Aufbruch Leverkusen. It is also known that in August this year, the spouses Kolbasnikova and Schlund attended a festival, organized by the neo-fascist magazine Compact for representatives of far-right movements. The main themes of the event were “Germany's freedom from US and NATO dictatorship” and “peace with Russia.” Notably, one of the festival guests, Robert Farle, a Bundestag member from the Alternative for Germany party, gave a speech at a pro-Russian rally in Cologne in December.

Elena Kolbasnikova and Markus Beisicht at a pro-Russian rally in Cologne
Elena Kolbasnikova and Markus Beisicht at a pro-Russian rally in Cologne

The Russian diaspora has long been known to have ties with German nationalists. In 2016, the National Democratic Party of Germany (NDPG) and the movement “European Patriots against the Islamization of the Old World” (Pegida) helped the Russian-speaking community organize rallies in defense of the Russian girl Liza, allegedly abducted and raped by migrants in Berlin (after an investigation, police found that the story was concocted). It turned out that the application for those rallies had been submitted by the marginal organization International Congress of Russian Germans, led by ethnic German Heinrich Groth, a native of Kazakhstan. Demonstrations demanding the revision of migration policy and Angela Merkel's resignation took place in other German cities in the winter of 2016. Calls to take to the streets were sent out en masse via messengers and social media, including Odnoklassniki.

Back then, Russian television was actively promoting the diaspora's protest sentiments. Channel One's rhetoric was so aggressive that the Berlin prosecutor's office was even requested to check one of the reports for incitement to ethnic hatred. The accusations of inaction and concealment of the truth about the “crime” came from both Maria Zakharova and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov himself.

The scale of the Russian disinformation campaign on the “Liza case” and the unprecedented political activity of the usually inert “Russian Germans” alarmed the German public. The man behind the protests, Heinrich Groth, also aroused suspicions. In the 1990s, while living in Russia, he was known as a fighter for the rehabilitation and restoration of the statehood of the Soviet Germans - and, according to his profile in Spiegel, worked closely with the Russian special services. It was also reported that Groth flew to Moscow at the height of the Liza story “in connection with the organization of a protest event.” All this indicated that the “Russian revolt” was orchestrated by the Kremlin, which is interested in destabilizing the domestic political situation in European countries.

“Moscow has a heritage to subvert societal movements, especially directed against European and Transatlantic structures. The new dimension is that whereas during Soviet time it was mostly socialist structures, today's focus shifted more to new conservative and right-wing as well as extremist movements,” says German political scientist Felix Riefer. Russian officials and “de-nazificators” close to the Kremlin, such as Konstantin Malofeev and Alexander Dugin, have indeed been in contact with the extreme right and other radical forces in Europe for years. In 2015, former NDPG leader Udo Voigt was invited by the Rodina party to speak at the International Russian Conservative Forum in St. Petersburg - essentially a gathering of Russian and European neo-Nazis. An admirer of Hitler, Voigt in his speech praised Vladimir Putin's “skillful and subtle” political course. In late 2020, Sergey Lavrov received in Moscow a delegation from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany party, which for years had maintained close relations with Moscow and allegedly received secret funding from it. With the outbreak of the war, however, AdG leaders chose to distance themselves from their longtime partner, admitting that “there is no justification for Russia's attack on Ukraine.

Co-written with Iva Tsoi

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