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Anti-immigrant groups, separatists and others across Saxony’s political spectrum are increasingly calling to end the war on Putin’s terms. Ukrainians in their midst are feeling the change in attitude

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In Dresden, protesters carry the flag of Saxony and a German-language banner reading ‘peace with Russia’ to voice their opposition to western sanctions against the Putin regime.Photography by Anna Liminowicz/The Globe and Mail

They came with Russian flags, Russian ribbons and a giant banner that read “peace with Russia.” More than 500 strong, all braved a cool Monday evening in Dresden to voice their anger at German sanctions against Russia and Western military aid for Ukraine.

After a few speeches under the careful watch of a handful of police officers, they marched through a neighbourhood of low-rise apartment buildings, blowing whistles, banging drums and attracting a smattering of applause from onlookers.

The same scene plays out every Monday in Dresden and dozens of towns and cities across eastern Germany, with some “peace parades” drawing several thousand people.

The marchers represent all walks of life – including business people, students and retirees – and they share political views that range from the far left to the far right. Some are still angry about pandemic restrictions while others rail against immigration. But they are united when it comes to the war in Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s call for peace talks, on Russia’s terms.

“Here in this protest there are definitely a few people who strongly support Putin,” said Marcus Fuchs, who heads a group called Querdenken (which means lateral thinking), and was among the marchers last Monday in Dresden. “It’s unlikely that you will find anyone supporting Zelensky here,” he added, referring to Ukraine’s President.

Marcus Fuchs, leader of the group Querdenken (‘lateral thinking’), takes part in one of the protests in Dresden.
A protest banner reads ‘enough of this’ over a figure representing the European Union kissing the feet of the United States.
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At Dresden’s Palace of Culture, a restored mural from the 1960s features Lenin and other Communist heroes. The mural was first made when Saxony was part of Soviet-allied East Germany.

Germany’s relationship with Russia has long been complicated, shaped by memories of the Second World War and deep economic ties. Nowhere is that relationship more complex than in the former East Germany, which endured four decades of Soviet control.

Millions of people in Saxony and other eastern regions speak Russian and identify with Russia culturally. Eastern Germany’s heavy industries are also highly dependent on Russian gas and oil, making sanctions particularly painful in this part of the country. Reunification with West Germany in the 1990s only increased suspicion of the West in the minds of many East German citizens, who still feel little attachment to institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.

The war in Ukraine has become a lightning rod for those grievances – and a chance for many East Germans to show their true colours and oppose the German government’s backing of Ukraine, even though Berlin has often been slower to respond than other western allies. Support for the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which has been sympathetic to Russia during the conflict, has increased in recent months and is currently running at around 27 per cent in some opinion polls here, compared with 12 per cent in the western part of the country.

“We have [a] long relationship with Russia so we also can see the Russian view that they have been provoked for a very long time,” said Torsten Kraft, a 60-year-old pensioner in Dresden who supports the Monday demonstrators.

Mr. Kraft echoed Mr. Putin’s arguments that Russia went into Ukraine to help the Russian minority, and that the Kremlin has no designs beyond what it calls a special military operation. “The Ukraine is an artificially constructed country which was originally part of Russia,” he said. “Putin said he’s only going to help people who ask for help, so he’s not going to invade countries which are not asking for help.”

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Toresten Kraft, a Dresden pensioner, supports Mr. Putin’s version of why Russian troops are in Ukraine.

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Michael Bruck and Robert Andres, shown in Chemnitz, are members of the pro-independence movement Free Saxony.

A new movement launched last year called Free Saxony is seeking to tap into the widespread disgruntlement by calling for the region, which includes Dresden and Leipzig, to separate from Germany. “The main policy is more independence and more power for Saxony,” said Michael Bruck, a party activist in Chemnitz, a small city west of Dresden. He added that in recent local elections the party won between 20 per cent and 30 per cent of the vote in some villages and districts.

Mr. Bruck said Free Saxony also wants strict controls on immigration and complete neutrality for Germany, which includes pulling out of NATO and the EU. He and other party members argue that Germany and the West should stop supporting Ukraine because doing so will only prolong the war.

“It’s a problem between Russia and Ukraine. And it should not be the German job to be on one side, because we need Russia, too,” Mr. Bruck said. He also has no qualms if Russia takes Ukraine and then decides to move into Poland owing to its strong support for Ukraine. “I can believe that there will be a new conflict,” he said. “But that’s a situation because it’s old countries from the Soviet Union that causes this conflict. I don’t think Germany should do anything.”

Those fighting extremism worry that the Monday demonstrations have bolstered the legitimacy of right-wing ideology and fostered a backlash against all refugees, including Ukrainians.

“These arguments, they’re just gaining followers,” said Melanie Riedlinger, who works with a Dresden-based organization called Kulturburo Sachsen, which counters extremist activities. “Especially in smaller parts of Saxony, they are the only ones who are offering demonstrations where people can let out their anger toward the government. But then they’re also coming with the racist arguments, like anti-immigrants.”

Authoritarian leaders such as Mr. Putin offer simple solutions, Ms. Riedlinger added. That has encouraged some Germans to adopt a “them versus us” mentality and rebel against what they see as western liberalism. “I think what they’re rather attracted to is that Russia symbolizes the opposition to NATO and the modern West,” she said.

Activist Melanie Riedlinger worries that right-wing groups are becoming bolder in their anti-immigration rhetoric.
n Chemnitz, Elena Chernenko says most locals have been supportive but she avoids talking to strangers for fear of them learning she is Ukrainian.
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Viktoria Liubertseva checks the vandalized car of a fellow Ukrainian refugee in Chemnitz. Her own car has been keyed three times since she arrived here months earlier.

Some Ukrainian refugees have already felt the backlash. Viktoria Liubertseva and her infant son, Yaroslav, fled Kharkiv last August and came to Chemnitz, the third largest city in Saxony, after stopping in Poland. They packed whatever they could into their car and drove the entire way from Ukraine.

But since arriving a few months ago, Ms. Liubertseva’s car has been scratched by keys three times. Around 10 other cars with Ukrainian licence plates in her apartment complex have also been vandalized. She believes Ukrainians have been targeted and she can’t understand why. “It was awful for us,” she said.

Elena Chernenko, who also lives in Chemnitz with her nine-year-old son, said that while most residents have been helpful, she has experienced enough animosity that she’s reluctant to speak to strangers for fear of identifying herself as a Ukrainian refugee. Her son was bullied so badly by kids on his soccer team that she pulled him from the club. She has also been yelled at by a woman who told her, “Ukrainian people think they can do anything.”

“We try not to communicate too much because it might be dangerous,” Ms. Chernenko said.

Like many of the Monday protesters, Mr. Fuchs has compassion for the refugees and feels Germany should offer support. But he believes the refugee crisis will only end when the West stops backing Ukraine, even if that hands control of the country to Russia. “Our support of Ukraine just is resulting in never-ending war,” he said.

Mr. Fuchs is convinced that if the West withdrew its military aid, the war would end and Russia would not advance beyond the borders of Ukraine. “Russia won’t keep going, definitely not.”

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