02 January, 2017
Some European leaders are worried that Russia will try to influence their elections this year.
The concerns come as possible Russian interference in the United States presidential election last year continues to be debated.
There will be national elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands in 2017. Experts say Russia is already trying to help some candidates win. Russia denies that it is doing so.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will seek a fourth term in office this year. She has led efforts in Europe to punish Russia for taking actions that democratic nations oppose. Experts say she is the European leader that Russia would most like to see voted out of office.
In December, Merkel said Germany must be ready to stop attempts by other countries to interfere with its elections.
"We have to inform people and express our political convictions clearly. We also should not allow ourselves to be irritated. We just have to know that there's such a thing and learn to live with it."
Almost one million migrants entered Germany in 2015. Some Germans do not support such a large number. Experts say Russia will try to use anti-immigrant activists to help oust Merkel. And they say Russia will likely increase what are being called disinformation activities in the months and weeks before the election.
Ian Bond is an analyst at the Center for European Reform.
"They (Russia) can target it both in France and in Germany. But because Angela Merkel herself has been so closely identified with the policy of admitting refugees and asylum-seekers to Germany, it is, I think, an area of vulnerability for her."
The Alternative for Germany political party opposes immigrants. It has been gaining support, as measured by public opinion studies.
Thorsten Benner is an expert at the Global Public Policy Institute. He says pressure on the German government could increase if the migrant situation in Europe gets worse.
Anti-immigrant political parties throughout Europe have sought close relationships with Russia. Marine Le Pen is the leader of one of those parties, the National Front in France. A Russian bank provided her with a $10 million loan to help her election campaign.
Bond says the anti-immigrant parties share one goal: they want to cause division in the European Union.
"And, from a Russian point of view, if you can divide Europe, if you can then pick off individual states and make them feel more vulnerable or make them feel that they have to accommodate themselves to Russia, then that's a huge win."
Bond says when Donald Trump becomes president in January, European unity will be tested.
"Trump himself, like (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, seems to share this preference for dealing with countries in Europe bilaterally rather than multi-laterally. And so I think he is not going to shed many tears if, in fact, the EU is weakened as a result of Russian activity in European elections in the coming months."
Trump has said NATO allies should pay more for their defense. But he has not said he wants the European Union weakened.
European leaders hope that, by talking about their worries long before elections are held, they can stop any attempts by Russia to influence voters. But experts says Russia has already begun spreading propaganda to increase its influence.
I'm Christopher Jones-Cruise.
Correspondent Henry Ridgwell reported this story from London. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the report for Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.
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Words in This Story
irritate – v. to make (someone) impatient, angry or annoyed
disinformation – n. information that is given to people to hide the truth or in order to make them believe something that is not true
vulnerability --n. the ability to be hurt or the state of having a weakness
analyst – n. a person who studies or analyzes something
pick off – phrasal verb to separate something or someone from a group
accommodate – v. to get used to or become comfortable with something; to adapt or adjust to something
bilateral – adj. involving two groups or countries
multi-lateral – adj. involving more than two groups or countries
shed a tear – expression to be worried