Putin Will Find Germany's Elections Hard to Subvert

(Bloomberg View) -- The German political establishment and intelligence agencies are all but certain that Russia will try to influence the elections that will be called in 2017. There are a few reasons, though, why Germany has a greater resistance to the methods the Kremlin is alleged to have used in the U.S. Germany would require a different approach. 

Chancellor Angela Merkel was the most active proponent of sanctions against Russia after its aggression in Ukraine, giving President Vladimir Putin a score to settle. Throughout Europe, Russia has backed nationalist and populist parties that aim to weaken the European Union. In Germany, the far-right, Euroskeptic party AfD, or Alternative for Germany, could use help fighting establishment political forces. So Merkel has reason to worry.

In a speech to Parliament last month, Merkel talked about the changed media landscape. "Fake pages, bots, trolls can distort views," she said. "Today, self-regenerating opinions can reinforce themselves through certain algorithms. We must learn to deal with this." Merkel's warning didn't mention Russia, but last week, a communication from Hans-Georg Maassen, head of Germany's BfV domestic intelligence service, left no doubt about where he believed the threat lay. 

Maassen wrote of the likelihood of a Russian disinformation campaign to "introduce insecurity to German society, weaken and destabilize the Federal Republic." He also warned of cyberattacks by a group known as Advanced Persistent Threat 28, or Fancy Bear -- a hacking team accused of breaking into the U.S. Democratic National Committee. Maassen said spear-phishing activity aimed at parties and parliamentary factions has been on the rise and will probably increase as the election draws closer.

Germans already have an inkling of what a propaganda and disinformation campaign looks like. Last year, Russian media made a cause celebre of the alleged rape of a teenage girl from a Russian emigre family in Berlin. Middle Eastern refugees were falsely blamed, and part of the Russian-speaking community in Germany was up in arms. The 6 million "Russians" (or, rather, former Soviets) are the biggest immigrant group in Germany, concentrated in the major cities. They've been politically passive, but are mostly conservative, distrustful of Muslims and unimpressed with the progressivism of Germany's education system. If the Kremlin manages to get them fired up, their anger can affect the election. Maassen warned that community would be one of the targets of a disinformation campaign.

Recently, pro-Kremlin Russian media have startedreporting on a little-known organization in Germany, Besorgte Eltern, or Concerned Parents. The group, which appears to include many ex-Soviet emigres, opposes sexual education in schools. It's easy to make this sort of protest political: AfD stands for "classical family values" in the schools.

Merkel has never developed a message for the Russian-speaking community. There's still plenty of time, though, and even if she fails and the entire diaspora votes for AfD -- an unlikely scenario -- that still won't carry the day for the nationalists. Germany doesn't have a two-party system, and polls show AfD getting into Parliament with a sizable faction, but not even coming close to a plurality and a chance to govern.

Although it has been bumpy, Putin has a better relationship with Merkel than he had with Hillary Clinton. He has spent nights negotiating various Ukraine cease-fires with her, and they speak regularly on the phone. But she is still an open adversary. So Russia may try the kind of operation against her that apparently worked against Clinton -- what's known in Russia as kompromat, or compromising materials. In the U.S., it is alleged that WikiLeaks received the content of Russian hacks against the Democrats. 

It doesn't matter that Germany has advance warning about hackers on the prowl for such data. People click on links in spear-phishing e-mails no matter how many times they're told to be careful. In the case of Clinton's campaign chairman John Podesta, a tech-support worker failed to identify a phishing message, allowing hackers to access Podesta's e-mails. 

Unlike Clinton, Merkel lives modestly on her government salary and is known for her moderation and common touch. Putin's hackers probably won't dig up anything comparable to the "Clinton, Inc." memo -- or anything that would justify her rivals calling her corrupt, as Donald Trump has done with Clinton. Earlier this month, WikiLeaks gave Germans a glimpse of what its contribution to the campaign might be by publishing a trove of documents from a parliamentary inquiry into the collaboration between Germany's BND foreign intelligence and the U.S. National Security Agency. Merkel's close relationship with the U.S. and the intelligence-sharing between two countries are promising targets for attacks: Germans don't want their government to be Washington's puppet, and they're fiercely protective of their privacy. The U.S. is viewed less favorably here than in most big European countries.

Nonetheless, it is easier to fight off accusations of being a U.S. puppet -- Germany, after all, is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization -- than to deflect allegations of corruption. Merkel's popularity didn't drop dramatically in 2014, when the NSA leaker Edward Snowden first revealed the extent of Germany's intelligence cooperation with the U.S., and this line of attack probably won't derail her now.

Merkel's Achilles heel in this election is the refugee crisis of 2015. I doubt, however, that much unpublished kompromat exists on that: Merkel's mistakes in handling the crisis were extensively covered by the German press. And unlike Americans, whose trust in the media is at a historic low, Germans still trust traditional media. 

Putin Will Find Germany's Elections Hard to Subvert

There's a notable difference between the ways relatively conservative Germans and tech-crazy Americans get their news. Only 20 percent of Americans find it in newspapers; 57 percent of Germans still read a newspaper or a magazine every day. That means the effectiveness of fake news campaigns and social network echo chambers won't be as high in Germany as it was in the U.S. 

Besides, Germans are far more amenable to speech restrictions than Americans. Germany has hate speech laws that would be impossible under the First Amendment. Calls to outlaw fake news or prosecute those who spread it are coming from many quarters, especially from Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union, and the other centrist political force -- its coalition partner, the Social Democratic Party. Unlike in the U.S., the government in Germany has the ability to go after those who knowingly publish disinformation. A Russian TV journalist who reported on the fake rape earlier this year was briefly under investigation, though he wasn't convicted.

On Tuesday, the leader of the Social Democrats, Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, posted a photo of a handwritten message on Twitter: "A fair fight! That's how we must fight the 2017 election -- not like in the U.S.! No fake news, no bashing, no insults." Gabriel wrote "fake news" and "bashing" in English. Germany doesn't even have the kind of echo chambers of anti-establishment opinion that amplified the anti-Clinton line in the U.S., where a propaganda effort could just use the existing channel that gorged on the additional content. In Germany, the channel itself would need to be built.

Putin's propaganda machine is sophisticated and creative, and it probably has some surprises in store for Germany's establishment parties. Yet even despite likely Russian interference, Germany's healthier political system, less disparaged media and more conservative information culture should stop the 2017 elections from turning into the kind of painful spectacle the U.S. presented this year.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net.