“No human rights violations have been observed in Crimea”, — announced the group Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD) political party members who visited Crimea in early February, 2018.
The nine-person delegation was composed of State Diet (Landtag) representatives and city council members, such as Evgeny Schmidt from the “Russian Germans for AfD” fraction; as well as Christian Blex, Nick Vogel, and Helmut Seifen, — all three from the North Rhine-Westphalia parliament.
The German parliamentarians had been invited to Crimea by the obscure organization called the Regional German Ethnic and Cultural Autonomy of the Republic of Crimea. Its Chair Yuri Gempe confirmed that the Autonomy covered part of the expenses associated with the trip. Incidentally, Mr. Gempe happens to serve on the Crimean State Council as representative of the Putin’s United Russia party.
This trip has set off an outpour of indignation from various German federal government officials, outraged the leadership of the AfD party itself and drove a wedge among its various chapters. While the Baden-Württemberg and North Rhine-Westphalia AfD factions have supported the visit, several local AfD chapters refused to endorse it. The Berlin AfD attempted to publicly distance itself from the controversial visit by stressing via its social media accounts that the trip was private in nature and the delegation members hadn’t received the mandate “from neither the faction nor from the party”.
“I am critical of this visit” – stated George Pazderski, the head of the Berlin AfD in his interview to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He felt that this initiative by his colleagues was dangerous in that it could “shut the doors to other east European countries”. He also speculated that the parliamentarians who visited Crimea may have been simply “used” by someone.
Notably, the visit has been covered extensively in the Russian media. Russian newspapers and TV channels have described in rich detail the astonishment of German guests who, contrary to their pre-trip expectations, observed modern well-designed highways instead of beat-down roads.
In their coverage, Russian outlets conveniently leave out certain details. For example, “not every segment clarifies that these were local officials representing State Diets (Landtag)”, —notes a reporter from Deutschlandfunk. “Instead, they are introduced simply as “German parliamentarians”. Such nuance is critical. The politicians who spent a week in Crimea and returned to Germany on February 9, are members of local parliaments from three states: North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Württemberg, and Berlin. They are not part of the AfD’s leadership and do not play a significant role in decision-making at the federal level. For example, one of them, Roger Beckamp, merely chairs an AfD chapter at the City Council of Cologne.
This was not the first trip by AfD representatives to Crimea. The April 2016 visit by an EU Parliamentarian and AfD member Marcus Pretzell to the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by the Russian Federation turned out just as scandalous when it was uncovered that it was sponsored by a Russian foundation. This became evident from the disclosure documents filed by the German politician at the insistence of the Ethics Commission of the European Parliament.
The Prosecutor’s Office of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (which is a part of Prosecutor General’s Office of Ukraine) has opened a criminal investigation against the German citizens who visited the peninsula. The announcement has been published on the website of Prosecutor’s Office.
The case was initiated under Article 332-1 Part 1 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (“Violation of the entry regulations to the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine”). The Prosecutor’s Office stated, that “on February 3, 2018, a group of citizens of the Federal Republic of Germany arrived in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea in disregard of the order of entry to the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine. The above-mentioned citizens planned to use this visit to meet with representatives of the Russian occupation authorities to discuss cooperation with the German side”.
This, however, is not the end of the story of the odious adventures of AfD reps. Some of them (Christian Blex, for example) followed up with a trip to Syria, which also triggered a negative reaction, including from the ruling party of Christian Democrats (CDU).
On Tuesday, March 6, 2018, Michael Brand who represents the CDU/CSU parliamentary faction issued a statement denouncing the trip to Syria by a number of MPs from the AfD party. He declared that “meeting with criminal cliques” while “dictator al-Assad uses bombs and chemical weapons” is “just awful.” AfD members of parliament “did not shy away even from meeting the ruthless mufti” who, according to Brand, “called for suicide attacks in Europe and personally signed thousands of death warrants”.
Why would members of German local parliaments so actively pursue foreign affairs activities while conducting them “privately”? The AfD delegates insist that the latter trip was self-paid, which contradicts the Russian official story. Such activity is outside of their jurisdiction level and is not sanctioned by their party or even local chapters. Clearly, courting scandal and the attention of the media is one of the key political tactics of the AfD. The Russian media omits from its coverage the AfD’s far-right populism, asks no inconvenient questions and portraits it as a viable political force in Germany.
We should, therefore, not be surprised to discover AfD representatives serving as so-called “independent” observers during the Russian presidential elections. Exactly what they will “observe” is hardly a mystery either.
The Russian government is planning a large “international” conference in Crimea this April. The invitations have been already issued to the left-wingers as well as to AfD members. We will just have to wait and see whether the AfD participation will once again take the form of “personal visits”, or the party leadership would finally stop this homegrown diplomacy.