11:52 Apr. 20, 2016
"Russia is starting to weaponize electoral processes in Europe," expert says
It was the kind of crime that sears the soul, the gang rape of a 13-year-old ethnic Russian girl by a trio of immigrants in Germany.
The first reports galvanized the Russian diaspora, bringing tens of thousands into the streets to protest Chancellor Angela Merkel's open-door policy.
Trouble is, the attack never happened. It was just a teenager's tall tale, police quickly concluded.
German officials say the controversy - known as the "Lisa Affair" - was ginned up by President Vladimir Putin's propaganda machine to undermine Merkel in the run up to last month's regional elections, which resulted in stinging losses for her party. The worry now in Berlin, Brussels and beyond is that with Britain poised for a historic referendum on European Union membership and national votes in France and Germany next year, Putin will intensify efforts to divide the 28-member bloc.
"Russia is starting to weaponize electoral processes in Europe," said Joerg Forbrig, senior program director of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in Berlin. "The Lisa Affair was a real eye-opener."
The mobilization in Germany shows a reach by the Kremlin into the political workings of Europe's largest economy that goes far beyond the frequent policy hazings meted out by its English-language media arms, RT television and the Sputnik news service.
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Putin's longtime foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, broke with diplomatic convention in late January to accuse Germany of a cover-up in the Lisa Affair. That outraged Merkel's government, prompted Lavrov's counterpart to issue a rare personal rebuke and led the chancellery to order the BND spy agency to probe the Kremlin's role in the scandal, the officials in Berlin said.