Germany justifies expulsion of Russian diplomats over espionage threats

Germany expelled Russian diplomats mid-April in order "to reduce the presence of intelligence services" in the country, the government said, in justifying a decision that triggered retaliatory expulsions by the Kremlin.

Former cybersecurity head
Former head of Germany's cybersecurity agency Arne Schönbohm pictured in August 2022. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Monday that “the activity of these people was not in line with their diplomatic status”, adding it had been in contact with Russia in recent weeks about the matter.

Berlin had previously not provided a justification for the departure of the diplomats, a move that triggered the expulsion of some 20 German embassy staff in Moscow, which the ministry confirmed left on Monday.

“Unlike the members representing Russia in Germany, our colleagues have always concerned themselves with behaving in accordance to their diplomatic status,” the ministry said.

A close economic partner with Russia before the military offensive in Ukraine, Germany has since moved away from Moscow, financially and militarily supporting Kyiv in the conflict.

READ ALSO: Russia asked German spy for Ukraine war intel: report

Since the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, Russian espionage in Germany has grown at a rate rarely equalled in recent years, according to German security services.

In spring 2022, Germany already expelled some 40 Russian diplomats who Berlin believed to represent a threat to its security.

Last October, the head of German’s cybersecurity agency, Arne Schönbohm, was fired after news reports revealed his proximity to a cybersecurity consultancy believed to have contacts with Russian intelligence services.

A month later, a German reserve officer was handed a suspended prison sentence of a year and nine months for spying for Russia.

READ ALSO: German civil servants ‘probed on Russian spy suspicion’

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German far-right leads mayoral race near former Nazi camp

Joerg Prophet flashed a brilliant white grin as he greeted voters at his campaign stand in Nordhausen, a small but prosperous city in the former East German state of Thuringia.

German far-right leads mayoral race near former Nazi camp

The mayoral candidate for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) has plenty to smile about. He is the clear favourite to win Sunday’s run-off vote to lead the city of 40,000 people.

A win for the 61-year-old former entrepreneur would be a “catastrophe”, said the keepers of a nearby concentration camp memorial.

Around 60,000 prisoners were held in the Mittelbau-Dora slave labour camp — a subcamp of the notorious Buchenwald — only six kilometres (3.7 miles) from central Nordhausen.

They were forced to make V-2 rockets in brutal underground conditions, with around one in three worked to death.

An AfD mayor would not be welcome at commemorative events at the site’s memorial, Jens-Christian Wagner, director of the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, told AFP.

‘Nazi ideology’

“The AfD is an extreme right-wing party whose ideology is congruent or at least very similar in many areas to the ideology of the National Socialists,” he said.

Prophet won 42.1 percent of the vote in the first round of the mayoral election earlier this month, with his rival, incumbent Kai Buchmann, picking up just 23.7 percent.

Independent candidate Buchmann, in office for the last six years, has fallen out of favour with many residents after repeatedly clashing with the city council.

The controversy has led to calls for a fresh start, with Prophet gladly stepping into the frame. Like many members of the far-right party, Prophet has been accused of extremism and historical revisionism.

In a blog post in 2020, he claimed the Allied forces that liberated the Mittelbau-Dora camp were only interested in snooping on the site’s rocket and missile technology.

He also called for an end to Germany’s Schuldkult, or “guilt cult”, a reference to the country’s efforts to remember and learn from the Holocaust.

But such controversy appears to have done nothing to deter voters. “Everything I hear from Nordhausen… suggests that Prophet will be elected not despite such historical revisionist positions, but precisely because of such positions,” Wagner said.

Right-wing extremist attitudes are becoming increasingly widespread in Germany, according to a survey published this week by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.

Eight percent of Germans can now be classified as having clear right-wing extremist views, compared with two to three percent in previous years, the foundation said.

A win for Prophet would be the latest in a string of successes for the AfD, created in 2013 as an anti-euro outfit before seizing on anger over mass migration to Germany.

The party secured its first district administrator position in June, also in Thuringia, and its first town mayor in July in neighbouring Saxony-Anhalt.

‘Fresh wind’

At the national level, recent opinion polls have put the party on 22 percent, above Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s centre-left SPD and only a few points behind the main opposition conservative party.

The AfD’s support is especially strong in Thuringia, where it is polling on around 34 percent according to a recent survey by regional broadcaster MDR.

Thuringia will hold a vote for its regional parliament in September 2024, along with two other former East German states, Brandenburg and Saxony.

Wagner believes there is a real possibility the party could win at least one of these votes.

“I believed that the Germans had learned from their past. But at the moment I am very worried that… such an ideology will again become so widespread in Germany that they will gain majorities,” he said.

At the town hall in Nordhausen, where some voters were already casting postal ballots in person, retired planning technologist Juergen Jungershausen, 75, shared Wagner’s concern.

A far-right mayor “is not a good choice” for Nordhausen, “especially in view of our history”, he said.

But back at the AfD campaign stand, retired car mechanic Gerd Wille, 62, thought a win for Prophet “would be good for Nordhausen”.

“The man is an entrepreneur, and entrepreneurs approach things with a certain purpose,” he told AFP.

An AfD mayor would mean “fresh wind — and not just fresh wind, but good wind”, he said.