Russian president Vladimir Putin arrived in Germany yesterday to protests over his human rights and democracy record and a warning from chancellor Angela Merkel that Russia needed an active civil society to flourish.
Mr Putin’s visit to Germany and the Netherlands, Moscow’s biggest trade partners in Europe, was supposed to focus on trade but comes at an awkward time just weeks after a wave of state inspections of foreign-funded non-governmental organisations in Russia, much criticised abroad.
In her address at the opening of an industrial fair spotlighting Russian business, Mrs Merkel told Mr Putin that Russia was propped by its raw material deposits and huge investment in infrastructure but Germany could help it in its aims to innovate and diversify.
“We believe this can happen most successfully when there is an active civil society,” she said.
Germany and the Netherlands need Russia for energy and as a market for exports ranging from Volkswagen Touaregs to tulips, but are uneasy about the influence its oil and gas give it and about Mr Putin’s treatment of opponents and activists in his new Kremlin term.
Mrs Merkel had come under pressure at home to voice her concerns, not only on the inspections of NGOs, but also on their differences over Syria’s civil war and Russian criticism of the German-orchestrated financial bailout of Cyprus.
Her talks with Mr Putin would include “controversial subjects” she told reporters. In his address to the trade fair Mr Putin focused on Russia’s economic strength, noting, “despite global disarray and the global financial crisis, our country has continued to develop positively.”
Outside hundreds of protesters gathered, many carrying Syrian flags, others wearing devil masks or waving images of Mr Putin dressed in a prisoner’s stripped uniform. “Stop political terror,” read one banner.