German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin clashed in Moscow over human rights and democracy as they struggled to show a united front amid rising criticism from Germany.
Merkel, speaking alongside Putin today in the Kremlin, said she was “irritated” by Russian laws clamping down on political organizations and condemned the sentencing of members of the punk band Pussy Riot. Putin replied with accusations of gender inequality in Germany and discord in the European Union.
Both leaders sought to see beyond the tensions even as the meeting exposed fissures between Germany, which is bankrolling the European debt crisis as the region’s largest economy, and Russia, the world’s largest energy exporter. German-Russian trade is worth $83.5 billion, Putin said.
“My plea is not to see every criticism right away as destructive,” Merkel said at the German-Russian Petersburg Dialogue conference. “Our friendship won’t be better, our economic cooperation won’t be better, if we sweep everything under the carpet and only say when we’re of a single opinion.”
Merkel was visiting Moscow for the first time since Putin returned to Russia’s highest office in May. The trip follows a resolution passed last week in Germany’s lower house of parliament, or Bundestag, which criticizes Putin’s handling of opposition groups.
“The talks were anything but easy, but they were productive,” Putin said at a press conference after the two leaders held a joint Cabinet meeting. Earlier, he said that Germany and Russia “have different views, we argue, we look for compromises, but this not a gloomy atmosphere.”
Lawmakers from five of the six parties in the Bundestag voted to condemn the treatment of opposition figures and civil organizations in Russia, such as this year’s prison sentences for members of Pussy Riot. Merkel didn’t shy away from addressing the issue alongside Putin, who since last year has faced the biggest demonstrations against his 12-year rule.
“If we look at something like Pussy Riot, which has played a big role in the public sphere -- then we say, OK, that would also launch a big discussion if something like this happened in a church,” Merkel said. “But if somebody has to end up as a young woman for two years in a labor camp, I don’t -- it wouldn’t have been that way in Germany at least.”
Putin accused one of the band members of participating in an anti-Semitic demonstration in the Russian capital, saying that Merkel knew too few of the details. He was pressed later by a reporter on the accusation and repeated the claim.
“When it comes to political and ideological questions, we hear our partners but they know about what is happening while they are far away from here,” Putin said.
A lawyer for Pussy Riot-member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Mark Feigin, disputed Putin’s claim, saying the demonstration in question portrayed the treatment of ethnic minorities under the government. The band member is not anti-Semitic, Feigin said.
“It’s madness to call this performance anti-Semitic,” Feigin said in a telephone interview.
The German leader, a Russian speaker who grew up in Soviet- dominated communist East Germany, insisted that the two sides should be able to discuss constructive criticism. Putin, who served as a KGB officer in the East German city of Dresden during the Cold War and speaks fluent German, hosted the German delegation for dinner after a press conference.
A spat broke out between the two countries last month when the Russian government responded to criticism by saying it didn’t recognize a German special envoy on Russian civil matters, Andreas Schockenhoff. The German government, backing Schockenhoff, said it would appoint whomever it wants to post.
Merkel, 58, said that the Russian government should accept points of democratic opposition in stride.
“You only have to open a German newspaper and see what’s going on,” Merkel said. “If I were pouting all of a sudden, I wouldn’t remain chancellor for three days.”
Putin, 60, walked with a slight limp as questions swirl about his health. The Russian president has mostly worked from his residence outside Moscow and has canceled or postponed foreign trips over the past month. The Kremlin’s only statement on the matter has been that Putin pulled a back muscle during judo training in early September.
Officials including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have repeatedly denied that Putin is undergoing treatment or avoiding travel.
To contact the reporters on this story: Patrick Donahue in Moscow at firstname.lastname@example.org; Ilya Arkhipov in Moscow at email@example.com
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