If not for the posters, one would have thought that the crowd had gathered for the early opening of the Christmas market in Leipzig. And then the speeches began.
“Please do not provoke the police and be aware that Russian flags or signs showing support for the Russian Armed Forces are not welcome“, the organizer announced over a loudspeaker during this month’s action.
“Germany serves as a puppet solely in the interests of the United States and the interests of NATO,” the first speaker proclaimed in front of several hundred people.
He was listened to by students, families and pensioners. Some of them were holding banners of the German Left, others were holding signs calling for peace. And some brought home-made banners, the inscriptions on which compare Russian war against Ukraine with the coronavirus pandemic. When anti-American rhetoric was heard, the crowd cheered and booed.
“The embargo policy against Russia has completely failed and has had a catastrophic effect on ourselves“, – said the speaker, remembering the Holocaust and proclaiming that the war in Ukraine is a “paradise” for “warmongers, defense industry companies and money-seekers“.
As writes Financial Times, for several weeks now every Monday evening, taking a cue from the protests in Leipzig against the communist regime in the 1980s, such actions take place in dozens of cities across East Germany. Most of them involve several hundred people. Often only dozens of interested people come to the rallies. But similar actions are carried out throughout Central and Eastern Europe. And this causes concern of the political class in the region.
In Germany, some protests are organized by left-wing radicals, and some by right-wing populists. This suggests that a deeper economic crisis, conflicting historical legacies and difficult relations with Russia are blurring traditional lines of political rivalry and creating new movements against the status quo. In Leipzig, the largest East German city after Berlin, radical right and left often protest together on Augustus Platz, where only a tram line separates them.
“We want NATO warmongers to stop creating conflict between Germany and Russia, between Ukraine and Russia”– said a pensioner and a participant in the rally, Sabine Kunz, who brought with her a sign with the inscription: “For peace with Russia.”
“We want to normalize gas and electricity prices. I don’t mind talking to you because people need to understand that we are not Nazis. We want peace“, – she said, adding that in kindergartens, children are “set up against Russian children.”
A 30-year-old unemployed man named David from Brandenburg was holding a caricature of Chancellor Olaf Scholz with the caption “Jumping Jack”. On the back was another inscription – “Biden’s War.”
“Ordinary Germans pay because America wants to interfere in Russia’s affairs“, he said, adding that his bills are rising and his chances of getting a job are shrinking.
The publication notes that protests in other East German cities over the past two months sounded very similar messages, regardless of the political bias.
“Energy security and protection against inflation – our land is above all!” banners proclaimed at a rally in Berlin in October. It was organized by the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany. Some protesters came with Russian flags. The German parliament recently released a list of slogans compiled by the security services that were used at 23 rallies in September. These actions were organized by the right-wing political organization Free Saxons. Among the slogans were “Launch Nord Stream 2 immediately!”, “Community, not division!” and “Stop inflation, war and coronavirus madness!”.
“Many different grievances are mixed at these protests, especially in eastern Germany. And from a democratic point of view, it’s a dangerous mix”, said political scientist Hajo Funke from the Free University of Berlin.
He noted that anti-war sentiment is spread by populist movements that during the pandemic opposed restrictions designed to stop the spread of the virus. According to Funke, the spread of such sentiment is slowed down by the effective actions of the German federal government, which is helping businesses and consumers deal with the consequences of the war. But given the beginning of the cold season and the increase in the number of refugees in Europe, it is difficult to say how everything will end.
There were even bigger protests in neighboring Czech Republic, although anti-Russian sentiment in the country has always been filtered through local political issues. In early September 70 thousand people took to the streets of Prague to protest against the government and NATO. According to the head of the political science department at the Metropolitan University in Prague, Petr Just, the crowd at the rally was addressed by “Euro-skeptics and people loyal to the Kremlin”, often associated with websites spreading conspiracy theories. But he added that the audience was “quite mixed.” Most of the people came to express dissatisfaction with the way the government deals with the socio-economic and energy crises.
“Many people didn’t know they were being used by groups loyal to the Kremlin‘, Yust explained.
In Slovakia, a poll released last month by think tank Globsec showed that 19% of the population would like Russia to win the war, not Ukraine. Anti-war and pro-Russian street protests have been small so far. But “that could change over the course of the winter,” warned Globsec director Dominique Gaidou. She added that, as in other countries, the Slovak protests bring together very different people.
In fact, some analysts have noticed that the protests that took place in Prague and other cities have not gotten bigger since September. Even despite the fact that the cold snap increased energy costs. Milan Nitsch, a research fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, believes that this must have “become a disappointment for everyone in Moscow who would like to see citizens oppose their governments.” But in Austria, pro-Russian sentiment seems to be gaining more weight.
Against the backdrop of an unpopular and divided centrist government whose members have been featured in several corruption scandals, Austrian populists from the Freedom Party have begun to ramp up voter support, the latest polls show. They tirelessly blame the sanctions and opposition to Russian aggression for the economic hardship the Austrians are facing. Regional elections will be held in Lower Austria in January. And the German radicals, who have built close relationships with their Austrian counterparts, will keep a close eye on them.
“We have a clear message to the government, – announced the organizer of the protest in Leipzig. – In Germany, insecurity and fear are on the rise. Ukraine has been sacrificed to American interests… and we oppose that.”