Russian collusion

Russia trip exposes AfD ties to Moscow

afd
When you’re a patriot but kind of confused. Source: Bloomberg/Getty Images

It’s hardly a secret that the Alternative for Germany party (known as the AfD in German) is a huge fan of Vladimir Putin. Unlike other German parties, the anti-immigrant group is prone to vocally endorsing the Russian president and his policies, both at home and abroad. And the appreciation is clearly mutual. But this time, the AfD’s cozying to Moscow may backfire.

The German parliament has opened an administrative inquiry into a trip to Moscow that three leading AfD members took in early 2017, according to German media. Earlier this month, it emerged that an unidentified Russian sponsor paid for the private jet that flew them back to Berlin, footing a €25,400 bill. The AfD delegation was made up of then-party leader Frauke Petry, her husband Marcus Pretzell, who at the time was also a key party figure, and Julian Flak, a lawmaker in Saxony’s state parliament.

Both Mr. Pretzell and Mr. Flak have confirmed the reports. However, they declined to say which person or organization paid for the trip.

The move means the AfD possibly violated Germany’s strict party-funding laws, which ban political parties from receiving sums of more than €1,000 from donors based outside the European Union. Furthermore, Mr. Pretzell, as a member of the European parliament, should have informed the administration of the European legislature and provided details about the sponsor, which he seems not to have done. Although both Ms. Petry and Mr. Pretzell left the AfD after the federal election in September, the party could still face a fine.

“The AfD is the extension of Putin’s arm in the German parliament,”

Omid Nouripour, Green lawmaker in the Bundestag

Mr. Pretzell has claimed the trip was private. But even when it took place, the Moscow visit raised eyebrows back home. The three politicians traveled to Russia just weeks ahead of a string of state elections across Germany and half a year before last year’s federal election, amid heightened awareness of cyberattacks targeting Germany and concerns that Moscow might meddle in the elections as it did in the United States.

Besides, while in Russia, the trio met high-ranking politicians from Mr. Putin’s ruling party, including state Duma chairman Vyacheslav Volodin. They also met far-right leaders there. This cast doubts on Mr. Pretzell’s assurances that it was not an official trip. Shortly after the visit, Ms. Petry said the AfD delegation had talks about “cooperation with the German state governments,” with officials in Moscow.

The Bundestag administration has demanded a clarification from the AfD, news magazine Der Spiegel reported on Wednesday. But other lawmakers were quick to put two and two together. “For which lawmaker in a state parliament or indeed in the Bundestag would a Russian donor charter a private plane and pay €25,000 for it?” Norbert Röttgen, a senior lawmaker in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, asked. Green representative Omid Nouripour was blunter. “The AfD is the extension of Putin’s arm in the German parliament,” he said, calling the reports “fatal and shocking.”

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Are you sure we don’t have a receipt or something, Marcus? Source: dpa

The affair shines another light on Russia’s closeness with the AfD. Like most other far-right parties across Europe, it is avowedly pro-Putin. Its loud anti-immigrant stance does not extend to Russian-born Germans, for instance. The party has not shied away from courting them with pamphlets and campaign material in the Russian language, although it frequently slams other organizations for advertising in foreign languages within Germany. Earlier this year, AfD lawmakers caused controversy when they traveled to Syria and to Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula that Russia annexed in 2014. On both trips, they espoused pro-Russian views.

It remains to be seen whether the Bundestag administration is satisfied with the AfD’s denial of any wrongdoing because the party did not officially send the delegation to Moscow. But Germany’s own Russian collusion probe shows that having ties to Mr. Putin is a double-edged sword.

Jean-Michel Hauteville is an editor with Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. To reach the author:hauteville@handelsblatt.com

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