Russian president Vladimir Putin has laughed off a protest against him by topless women in Germany, joking that he enjoyed it.
There were more demonstrations later when he moved on to Amsterdam, where he was confronted by gay-rights activists.
Mr Putin’s visit to Germany and the Netherlands, Moscow’s biggest trade partners in Europe, was meant to focus on trade but comes at an awkward time after a wave of state inspections of foreign-funded non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Russia that has been much criticised abroad.
Three members of women’s rights group Femen, which has staged protests against Russia’s detention of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot around Europe, disrupted his visit to a trade fair in Hanover. They stripped to the waist and shouted slogans calling the Russian leader a “dictator” before being covered up and bundled away. “Regarding this performance, I liked it,” grinned Mr Putin at a joint news conference with German chancellor Angela Merkel.
“I did not catch what they were shouting. I did not even see if they were blondes, brunettes or chestnut-haired … I don’t see anything terrible in [the protest], though I think … it is better to be dressed if one wants to discuss political matters,” he said.
Earlier, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov accused the protesters of “hooliganism” and said they should be punished.
But Ms Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, said people in a free society had the right to protest.
The two leaders want to further boost booming economic ties, but Ms Merkel repeated her concerns about human rights in Russia after raids by the authorities on German and other NGOs based in the country.
A new law on NGOs requires them to register as “foreign agents” if they have foreign funding and are deemed to be involved in politics, something many prominent groups have refused to do on the grounds they are not acting on behalf of other nations and are not trying to influence Russian politics. For many, the term evokes Soviet-era oppression and Cold War espionage.
Mr Putin, a former KGB agent who worked in East Germany in the 1980s and speaks fluent German, denied that the Kremlin was trying to muzzle the NGOs and said Moscow just wanted to monitor the amounts of foreign funding going into Russia. “All our actions are connected not with closing and forbidding [foreign-funded NGOs] but with monitoring financial flows that go to non-governmental Russian organisations which are involved in internal political activity, and this money comes from outside of the country,” he said.
He said nearly $1 billion (£655 million) had flowed to Russian NGOs in just four months since Moscow approved the new law – a figure swiftly queried by NGOs in Moscow. “The talk of $1bn is a lie,” Pavel Chikov, the head of Agora, a Russian legal aid NGO, said on Twitter.
Ms Merkel also reiterated her government’s criticism of the clampdown on NGOs, which have included several German foundations.
Later, Mr Putin travelled to the Netherlands, where he had to face an eyeful of protests in Amsterdam from gay rights activists.
In January, Russian MPs tentatively approved a bill that makes gay public events and the dissemination of information about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to minors punishable by fines of up to £10,000. It still requires final approval by parliament and would have to be signed by Mr Putin to become law.
Activists from Amnesty International hung signs satirising Russian policy and used fake police tape to block off access to the Hermitage Museum, with the message “critical journalists not allowed”.