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ANALYSIS Will Russia hack Germany's elections? By Peter Spinella, dpa

By our dpa-correspondent and Europe Online    auf Facebook posten  Auf Twitter posten  
Despite fears that Russia could meddle in Germany‘s upcoming federal elections, it appears unlikely that government hackers would take on Merkel, a giant on the international stage and frontrunner in the polls - leaving the game open for online vigilantes.

Moscow (dpa) - Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly denied that his government had any role in cyberattacks to influence the presidential elections in the United States and France.

Putin assured German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she visited Russia a few months ago that the Russian government would not meddle in Germany‘s federal elections in September, in which Merkel is seeking a fourth term.

But vigilante hackers, "if they are feeling patriotic," could undertake measures "against those speaking ill of Russia," Putin told reporters a few weeks later.

Merkel, who has maintained a commanding lead in opinion polls in the run-up to the vote, has led European efforts to pressure Russia into giving up Crimea, a southern Ukrainian region that Russia annexed three years ago in retaliation for Kiev ousting its pro-Russian president.

Merkel has also been a major broker in negotiations between Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in an effort to end a simmering conflict in Ukraine‘s two eastern-most regions, which border Russia.

"The German intelligence and wider political community are extremely concerned and wary regarding Russian activities in the run-up to the parliamentary election," said Sabine Fischer, who heads a Eurasian research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

But "if Russia interfered in the US in the way it is suspected, people in Moscow may think twice about doing it again in Germany, given the very negative consequences all this had on Russia-US relations, including the new sanctions bill, which are very severe from a Russian perspective," Fischer said in emailed comments.

However, Pavel Sharikov, an expert on US-Russian relations, suspected that the Russian government might not possess the technological capability "nor the will" to rein in vigilante hackers.

"That would seem more feasible than the government doing it itself, which would violate international law," said Sharikov, of the Institute for US and Canadian Studies in Moscow.

US intelligence agencies have repeatedly said that top officials in Russia were behind hacking last year against Democratic Party targets - worrying the governments of other Western democracies that see themselves as potential targets.

Trump, who expressed personal admiration for Putin during his campaign, bowed to pressure from Congress this month and signed legislation to strengthen US sanctions against Russia.

French officials also accused Russia of leaking confidential information to influence this year‘s French presidential election in favour of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, who visited Putin in a public display of strong ties a few weeks before the vote.

Unlike Trump, Le Pen lost the election.

There has been no definitive proof that the Russian government was responsible for any cyberattack to influence the US election, Sharikov said. An expert on German-Russian relations, Vladislav Belov, echoed that statement.

"Russia has no reason to interfere in the German elections," said Belov, who heads the Centre for German Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Merkel will remain chancellor. Russia knows this very well."

For Russia, "everything is understandable with Merkel," but not with her top rival, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, Belov said by phone.

Russia‘s leadership has received some backing from the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, whose support base is concentrated in former communist eastern parts of the country.

The anti-establishment party is set to enter Germany‘s federal parliament for the first time in the September 24 poll following a string of state-level electoral successes.

However, infighting over how loyal the party should be to its far-right support base has hurt the AfD in the polls.

"Alternative for Germany has demonstrated over the past months that they are internally divided and badly organized, which weakens their appeal to the German voters," Fischer said.

Combined with the political drama that has unfolded since Trump was inaugurated this year, many Germans have gone off the idea of supporting pro-Russia fringe parties.

People who saw the appeal of Trump and European populism "have understood by now the degree of instability and risk he introduced not only to US domestic politics, but to the world as a whole," Fischer said.


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