Von der Leyen castigates far-right AfD over Russiagate scandal

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen slammed the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party over allegations that some of its top members are linked with a scandal involving dissemination of pro-Russian propaganda.

“I am not surprised that the Czech secret service is currently investigating two candidates at the top of the AfD’s list for the European elections,” von der Leyen said Friday evening at a Christian Democratic Union (CDU) gathering in Hildesheim, Lower Saxony. “They have long been agitating against the European Union,” she said.

“They have never made a secret of their admiration for the democracy despiser in the Kremlin. They have carried his propaganda into our societies. Whether they have taken bribes for it or not,” said von der Leyen, who is campaigning for a second five-year term running the European Commission.

Czech authorities in March sanctioned the Prague-based Voice of Europe website over claims that European politicians had engaged with the outlet, using their influence to discourage support for Ukraine in its war against Russia. Two of the channel’s executives — including Viktor Medvedchuk, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin — were hit with sanctions.

Voice of Europe has conducted interviews with Maximilian Krah, the AfD’s top candidate in the European Parliament election in June, and with Petr Bystron, who is second on the AfD candidate list. Both politicians deny wrongdoing, AfD spokesman Daniel Tapp told Bloomberg.

Bystron specifically has denied claims that he took money to spread pro-Russian information. “At no time did I receive any cash payments or cryptocurrencies from an employee of ‘Voice of Europe’ (or any Russian),” Bystron wrote in a letter to the AfD leadership, according to media reports.

Concerns have been raised in recent months about the scale of Russian influence in EU institutions ahead of June’s European ballot. “The risk for the coming European elections is that bad actors like foreign actors and Russia are going to try to blend in to people’s online spaces when their guard is down,” said Jiore Craig, senior fellow on digital integrity at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an NGO working on disinformation.

On Friday, Belgium opened a criminal investigation into the alleged disinformation network. Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said unnamed MEPs had been paid to promote Moscow’s agenda.