ZOiS Spotlight 14/2021

German Attitudes to Russia after the Navalny Poisoning

by Gwendolyn Sasse 14/04/2021
The Russian Embassy in Berlin. IMAGO / Christian Spicker

The poisoning of Alexei Navalny in August 2020 and his treatment at Berlin’s Charité hospital have made this Russian opposition figure a household name in Germany and raised the profile of German-Russian relations in public debate. The German government responded to the poisoning by providing Navalny with personal protection; it also voiced sharp criticism of Russia’s handling of its political opposition and urged the EU to impose fresh sanctions against individual Russians. The Russian government reacted with sharp rhetoric and counter-sanctions. But have these events changed German public opinion on Russia?

In November 2019, ZOiS first included a series of questions on Russia in the regular nationwide Online Omnibus survey run by the public opinion agency Ipsos. The findings of this study revealed a stronger affinity for Russia in East Germany, with place of residence being more important than place of birth, as well as clear age and gender differences across Germany, with younger people and men voicing more affinity for Russia. In addition, there was a close correlation between political leanings towards the AfD and positive attitudes towards Russian President Vladimir Putin’s politics and style. More detailed focus group discussions conducted after the survey underlined the areas of common ground between East and West Germany in terms of affinity for Russia: in addition to a widespread and self-confessed lack of knowledge about Russia among focus group members, who came from diverse sociodemographic and party-political backgrounds, the discussions showed that Russia and its president primarily serve as a projection area for expressions of discontent with German domestic and foreign policy.

New Ipsos survey

In November 2020, ZOiS repeated its survey, this time also focusing on how the views on Russia from the focus group discussions related to Germany. This second survey, conducted by Ipsos in November 2020 among 1,078 internet users aged between 16 and 75 living in private households, was again representative for age, gender, region and employment (yes/no).

In response to the question “What comes to mind when you hear the name Vladimir Putin?” respondents had various options to choose from: 32 per cent replied “repression in Russia”, 30 per cent answered “a threat to Europe”, 24 per cent thought he was “an effective president” and 14 per cent chose “none of the these”.

Compared with 2019, two associations stood out more strongly in late 2020: the concept of Putin being a threat to Europe, but also the perception of Putin as an effective president. These two contradictory findings hint at a widening division within German society. Moreover, the majority of Germans were able to place the name Alexei Navalny in the correct context: 57 per cent identified him as a Russian opposition figure, but roughly 36 per cent did not know the name or were unsure about it. Just under 7 per cent thought he was a member of the Russian government.

In assessing the current status of German-Russian relations, half the respondents in the November 2020 survey expressed the view that bilateral relations should be closer; 31 per cent described the relationship as “just right”, and a further 19 per cent thought it was “too close”. Compared with 2019, there was a higher level of uncertainty in answers to this question, especially among women, the less educated and respondents with no political party leanings. Furthermore, the probability of viewing the relations as “too close” had increased somewhat, especially among older people, men, the better-educated and higher-income respondents. A tendency to favour a closer relationship with Russia is more prominent in East than in West Germany.

Surprisingly, the respondents’ views are influenced only to a very limited extent by personal contact with Russia: just under 11 per cent said that they had any contact with Russia. Belonging to a younger age group and party-political leanings towards the AfD, SPD or Left Party are characteristic of the profiles of individuals with a personal connection to Russia. An East German background, higher education and being male are other, albeit weaker, correlating factors.

Russia as a mirror

In order to explore, on a nationwide basis, the strong association between the views on Russia expressed in the 2019 focus group discussions and views on German politics, a further question was included in the survey in November 2020: “In your opinion, is there anything that Chancellor Angela Merkel could learn from Russian President Vladimir Putin?” A majority of 57 per cent answered in the negative, referring in this context to Germany’s democratic principles. However, around 43 per cent of respondents were not averse to the idea of German politics following the Russian president’s example in some areas: almost 16 per cent would like to see Chancellor Merkel – like Putin – placing more emphasis on national identity in German politics; 15 per cent wished that Merkel had President Putin’s ability to be assertive in international politics; and a further 12 per cent would like to see this assertiveness coming to the fore in the domestic arena. These findings reflect the trend observed in the focus group discussions of 2019: attitudes towards Russia are a measure of perceived weaknesses in German politics rather than being a direct assessment of politics in Russia itself. In fact, the survey shows that more than 60 per cent are critical of the policies adopted by Russia, seeing them as either threatening or repressive.

In all the answers to the question of what the German Chancellor could learn from the Russian President, the distinction between East and West Germany (place of birth and place of residence) is irrelevant. Other sociodemographic factors are also less significant than each of the key traits associated with Putin: in other words, attitudes towards the Russian President are closely linked to respondents’ expectations of German politics. The perception of Putin as an effective president strongly reflects a desire for more emphasis on national identity and assertiveness in German politics.

Since the attack on Navalny and his medical treatment in Germany, views on Russia within Germany have become more polarised: compared with 2019, there is now a stronger perception of Russia as a threat, yet there is also a more pronounced view that Vladimir Putin is an “effective president”. Expectations of German politics play a key role in attitudes towards the Russian President and his politics. The conflation of the two deserves more attention in the German public discourse.

Gwendolyn Sasse is the Director of ZOiS. In her project Russia2, she examines the views of Russia within Germany.