Opinions are divided on Vladimir Putin in Germany. For some he is an authoritarian power politician, for others a strong leader of Russia. Most of the time, critics only ridicule so-called “Putin understanders”.
30 years after German reunification, the question arises how “united” the Germans are in their image of Russia. Opinion polls regularly suggest that views in East and West Germany are very different. East German politicians give the impression of a particular economic proximity to Russia, demand a relaxation of the sanctions imposed in response to the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine or take a stand against a construction freeze on Nord Stream 2. West politicians are more critical, if so it’s about Russia. That’s the impression.
Gwendolyn Sasse, scientific director of the Center for Eastern European and International Studies (ZOIS) in Berlin, has doubts about these clichés: “The assumption of historical continuities implies an overly positive relationship between GDR citizens and the Soviet Union and thus fits seamlessly into the West German stereotypes about East Germans. ”
So the social scientist wanted to know more. In a study, the ZOIS investigated how big the differences really are. In mid-November 2019, ZOIS asked a number of questions about Russia as part of the daily Ipsos market research. This Germany-wide online survey reaches internet users between 16 and 75 years of age. Sasse: We then drew a representative sample of 1,078 people according to age, gender, region and occupation. “The ZOIS questions aimed at certain pointed associations with the name of Putin and with the politics of Russia. Ten focus group discussions were followed by this survey East and West Germany.
The aim was to trace the logic behind the positive images of Russia in particular. The results are surprising: 30 years after reunification, East and West Germans are no longer far apart in their attitudes towards today’s Russia. In the association “threat to Europe”, the place of residence is sometimes more important than the origin from the GDR or the old Federal Republic. One criterion for attitudes is therefore personal proximity to Russia. Those who maintain private or professional contacts with Russia, for example, view Russian President Vladimir Putin less as a threat and more as an effective president. Such connections have around 14 percent in the whole of Germany, with the proportion of those born in East Germany (17 percent) being higher than the respondents from West Germany (just under 11 percent).
According to the study, almost 60 percent of those born in East Germany do not perceive Putin as a threat. This value is another five percent higher for those living in eastern Germany. 49.5 percent from West Germany and 50.2 percent who live in the West do not see Putin as a threat.
The question of whether Putin is an effective president, however, affirms an almost equally high proportion in East and West with around 34 percent.
Positive images of Russia were associated with similar arguments in the discussions in the focus groups in both East and West Germany. This includes recognition for the role of the Soviet Union in peaceful reunification in Germany. Russia is often equated with the Soviet Union. There is also a certain admiration for Putin’s assertiveness at home and abroad. A comparison with German conditions is often used. The expectations of German politics measured by Putin include: the desire for “strength” in the implementation of political decisions, “closeness to the people” of the leading politicians and “national pride”. This criticism is louder in East Germany, but it can also be heard in the West and, according to the study, is not limited to the right-wing fringe of the party spectrum.
According to the ZOIS survey, more than a third of Germans would like closer German-Russian relations. 23 percent think the German-Russian relationship is just right, and 9 percent said that the relationship is too close. At almost 40 percent, the proportion of those who gave no answer to this question was very high.
Those in the discussion repeatedly expressed a feeling of ignorance about Russia, coupled with a pronounced skepticism towards the one-sidedly negative German media coverage. Sasse: “The discussion about Russia and Putin primarily offers a projection screen for criticism and demands in relation to German, European and American politics. This draws attention to the challenges that Western democracies have to face.” However, 40 percent of those questioned also stated that they knew too little about Russia and current politics. That went beyond age groups and educational levels. It also referred to the sanctions against Russia. “Very few people know what they actually mean. For many, however, gut instinct plays a role, according to which sanctions are negative and always hit the wrong people,” says Sasse of her experiences in the discussion groups. Gwendolyn Sasse’s conclusion: “The study contrasts the general assertion of an East German affinity for Russia with a more nuanced picture. It shows that Russia above all offers a projection screen for talking about German politics.”
Sick man in the Kremlin?
From the Russian center of power there have been rumors for some time that Vladimir Putin is sick. According to Valery Solovej, a well-known critic of the president, Putin is said to be suffering from cancer. At least that’s what he said in the British newspaper “Daily Mail”. According to this, Putin is said to have undergone an operation in early 2020. Others suspect that Putin also has Parkinson’s.
The Kremlin denies the reports. Russia expert Gwendolyn Sasse: “There have been repeated speculations about Putin’s health in recent years. However, they have intensified in recent weeks. However, the same Russian experts are quoted time and again with these assessments. They are currently not verifiable . ” What is new is that Putin’s daughter Katerina Tichonova, hitherto politically a blank slate, will be brought into play as his successor. Sasse: “It seems unlikely that she could be lifted into office anytime soon. Even in an authoritarian system, a degree of legitimacy and trust must be built in order to avoid instability.” Solovej is a political scientist and until 2019 was the head of the public relations department at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations. He resigned for “political reasons,” as he puts it