Anti-Islamic movement Pegida in Dresden appears to be acting in Russia’s interests. On November 16th, three days after the recent terrorist acts in Paris, more than 10 thousand people showed up in Dresden to participate in a protest demonstration against German authorities’ migration policies. The turnout was a few thousand more than the previous week but still less than during the rise of the protest movement. Pegida (short for Patriotic Europeans Against Islamization of the West) followers were certain that terrorist acts in Paris confirmed their concerns about the sharply increased influx of refugees in Germany.
Pegida is demanding a change in government and a stop to the admission of migrants. The protesters chanted “Merkel has to go,” referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Recently, one of the Pegida followers carried a symbolic gallows for the Chancellor. Many German and Russian flags fluttered over the square while protesters vented their hatred. A gray-haired man carrying a large flag said that he wished for the reduction of tensions between Germany and Moscow because he feared a war between Russia and Germany.
This protester sympathized with Russian President Vladimir Putin because unlike German politicians who only talk, Putin acts resolutely. The protester had never met Putin before but his boss once came in contact with the current Russian President. When Putin was a KGB officer, he served in Dresden in the latter half of 1980. Christian Demuth, Dresden political analyst, doesn't rule out the possibility that many people who played a certain role in the GDR (German Democratic Republic) may have been Stasi officers, members of the former Social Unity party. At the same time he acknowledged that the theory was mostly speculation.
Demuth could say for certain that Russian flags are carried mainly by older men at Pegida protests. Since the moment of its foundation, the anti-Islamic movement was also pro-Russian. In one of the sections of the Dresden proposals it demands immediate normalization of relations with the Russian Federation and an end to the war. At a rally which was held on February, a representative called for recognition of the annexation of Crimea and the lifting of sanctions against the West.
Pegida founder and leader Lutz Bachmann met at least once with bikers of the nationalist organization Night Wolves. He accompanied them while laying of wreaths of flowers at the military cemetery in Torgau. Bachmann was photographed with the Pegida banner in the background. President Putin appears to be very popular with Pegida. Bachmann spoke at the rally wearing the T-shirt with Putin’s image. At the demonstrations people shouted slogans such as “Merkel in Siberia, Putin in Berlin” and “Putin, help us.”
The pro-Russian side of the movement is still obscure but there is much information about the anti-Islamic and anti-Democratic leanings of Pegida. Experts have identified three main influences: the GDR (German Democratic Republic), anti-Americanism and the attractiveness of Putin and his system of government. Ironically, East Germans have treated Russians well despite the fact that they have always wanted Russians to leave their country, said Silke Satjulov, professor of the Magdeburg University. Satjukov was referring to the results of investigations and claimed that East Germans take the Russian side on the Crimea issue.
Justus Ulbricht, a Dresden historian who spoke to some Pegida followers drew attention to their anti-American sentiments. “To be pro-Russian is to be anti-American,” he said. Kerstin Köditz, a member of the Left Party, explained that few people who go to the Pegida protests know the real state of affairs in Russia. “They see strong man. There are shirtless photos where he is on horseback. People from Pegida like such images,” said Kerstin.
Experts noted that East German right-wing extremists admire Russian leader the most. Christian Demuth, political analyst and public activist believes that Putin is a leading figure for many right-wing extremists in Europe. He pointed out that followers of the National Democratic Party of Germany (NDPG) also visit Pegida protests. According to him, they constitute one fifth of the assemblage. Saxony is considered to be the center of NDPG where the party was represented in Landtag for many years. It received 4.9% representation at the 2014 elections. Udo Voight, former Chairperson of NDPG praised Putin and spoke in favor of lifting sanctions while he was speaking at a European conference of right-wing extremists in Saint Petersburg.
For Pegida followers, Dresden has a special relationship with Russia. They chose a special place to solicit Putin’s help—an area only a few meters away from the Opera House. This is where the Russian President was awarded with the Saxon gratitude medal for assistance in cultural exchanges between the two countries. Dresden and Saint Petersburg have been considered sister cities. Before the current crisis, the Saxon capital was popular with Russian tourists. The first representative office of the Russian World Fund, founded on the German-Russian Institute of Culture was opened in Dresden.
The management of the Institute, however, is careful not to associate with Pegida. Wolfgang Schälicke, the Head of the Institute believes that the leader of the movement, Lutz Bachmann, is a criminal. Bachmann has had his days in court for theft and other crimes. The Prosecutor’s office has tried him on suspicion of incitement of inter-ethnic hostility. Pegida is trying to use Russia and Putin for their own interests, Schälicke believes. His Deputy, Vitaliy Kolesnik, made mention of a “provocation”.
Many migrants from the former USSR that reside in Dresden are sympathetic to the Pegida movement. According to media, more than fifteen thousand Russians live in the Saxon capital. Some of them admit to fear of rising crime caused by migrant Muslims. That is one reason they go to the Pegida protests. Meanwhile, Russians face a dilemma because the Pegida movement is too radical to openly support.
A local man in his 30’s was afraid that if Pegida were to come to power people like him could be asked to leave the country. For that reason he simply prefers to avoid the movement.