Russia-Ukraine conflict divides Germany’s Eurosceptics

Alexander Gauland, top candidate in Brandenburg from Germany's Eurosceptic AfD, is threatening to withdraw from the regional race amid divisions within the party over the Russia-Ukraine conflict. []

Alexander Gauland, top candidate in Brandenburg foe Germany's Eurosceptic AfD, is threatening to withdraw from the regional race amid divisions within the party over the Russia-Ukraine conflict. []

Germany’s Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) is polarised over the Ukraine conflict, with Russian criticism coming from the party’s leader Bernd Lucke and Brandenburg’s top AfD candidate Alexander Gauland threatening to withdraw from the upcoming regional elections. EURACTIV Germany reports.

With elections in Saxony, Thuringia and Brandenburg just a few days away, the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) should be concentrating on its campaigning. But in the middle of the electoral race, a point of contention over foreign policy threatens to split the party.

In the past, the AfD’s leading candidates have often held opposing views over how Germany should react to the Ukraine conflict opposite Russia.

The Eurosceptic party’s top candidate in the Brandenburg elections, Alexander Gauland, even threatened to give up his candidacy, because he felt his views were being overridden by AfD leaders.

Gauland’s outrage was sparked by recent votes cast by AfD chief Bernd Lucke and three other AfD representatives in the European Parliament. In July, the two voted in favour of a request, filed by the European Council, to assemble further sanctions against Russia.

Besides Lucke, AfD representatives Hans-Olaf Henkel, Bernd Kölmel and Joachim Starbatty also voted in favour of the sanctions.

But neither Lucke, nor the AfD’s second-in-charge Henkel, mentioned the upcoming vote to the regional candidate before it took place. As a result, he was not informed until a party colleague relayed the news, sparking resentment against his colleagues in Brussels.

Speaking to the right-wing conservative newspaper Junge Freiheit, he predicted a division of the AfD and warned that he would give up his top candidate position in the Brandenburg regional election.

Still no consensus on Russia

“Lucke admitted that it was wrong not to inform the executive committee about the vote”, Gauland said after the conversation. But, he said, no common ground could be found regarding the point of disagreement.

Gauland’s position regarding Russia’s behaviour in the Ukraine conflict has been straying from that of his party colleagues for some time. Already in March at a national party convention, he called for greater understanding of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions on Crimea.

After Gauland’s statement, party members at the convention passed a resolution regarding sanctions imposed on Russia in the midst of the Ukraine crisis.

“In this unstable situation it is of the utmost importance not to impose any sanctions, not take any further measures to integrate Ukraine or parts thereof with the EU, or pursue the Russian Federation,” the document reads.

In a decision of the executive board on 8 April, the party’s leaders also rejected “any violence carried into Ukraine from the outside or political interventions beyond mediation efforts”. But at that time, Lucke and Henkel did not mention any opposition to Gauland.

Meanwhile Gauland sees his position as being reinforced by the atmosphere in social media. He examined this very closely on Facebook, the 63 year-old told Die Welt. “Over 90% of commenters from eastern Germany are critical of the vote,” he said.

While Lucke and Henkel are mostly supported in Germany’s west, regional chairman of North Rhine-Westphalia and MEP from the AfD Marcus Pretzell posted a joint status on Facebook reading: “Russia vote in the European Parliament: In favour of the party convention resolution. No to sanctions.”

Henkel stands by EP decision

Henkel continues to defend his choice in the July vote. In a statement for the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung (FAZ) the AfD leader said it was “easy” to vote for the sanctions, because it was not about economic sanctions but, rather, about measures against “corrupt persons” surrounding Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Since the convention resolution was passed, many things have occurred that even Russophiles in his party cannot have overlooked, Henkel pointed out.

But Gauland interpreted this step as a clear violation of the party convention resolution. “We said: ‘no sanctions'”, Gauland told the FAZ. He has scheduled a telephone conference within the next few days when he said he will present his position once again.

According to Gauland, division of the party has not yet been ruled out – particularly if the AfD representatives stray from resolutions within the party on other issues.

AfD could win 7% in Saxonia

The extent to which divisions within the party are affecting voter behaviour will be revealed in 10 days, after regional government elections in Saxony. According to a poll by television broadcaster ZDF, the AfD is currently hovering around 7%. If it receives this level of support in the upcoming elections, the party would win representation in the regional parliament for the first time. The ruling Christian Democratic Union was predicted to win 39%, still remaining the strongest party. The Left Party (Die Linke) is 20% and the Social Democrats are at 15% in the region.

But the majority of those surveyed rejected the possibility of a coalition between the centre-right Christian Democrats and the right-wing AfD. 62% rated the Eurosceptic party as bad and only 16% said they were good.

The crisis in Ukraine erupted after its former President Viktor Yanukovich cancelled plans to sign trade and political pacts with the EU in November 2013 and instead sought closer ties with Russia, triggering protests that turned bloody and drove him from power.

Moscow annexed Crimea in March following a referendum staged after Russian forces established control over the Black Sea peninsula in the biggest East-West crisis since the Cold War.

Pro-Russian militants control buildings in more than ten towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on 6 April. On 11 May pro-Moscow rebels declared a resounding victory in a referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, which the West called illegal and illegitimate.

The situation has worsened since then. In July, EU resolve to punish Russia strengthened after the downing in Ukraine earlier this month of a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane, killing all 298 people on board. 194 of the passengers were from the Netherlands.

Western leaders say pro-Russian rebels almost certainly shot the airliner down by mistake with a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile. Moscow has blamed Kyiv for the tragedy.

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