BERLIN — Russian President Vladimir Putin is in Germany to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and open a trade show that Russia is co-hosting. But the event could be overshadowed by recent human rights abuses by Moscow.
Ahead of his visit to the Hannover Trade Show, Russian President Vladimir Putin granted a rare interview to German public television.
Commentators in Germany said Putin agreed to the interview as an attempt at damage control. But his 35-minute appearance probably won't change minds in Berlin. Russia has come under heavy criticism from German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government since the Kremlin passed a law targeting nongovernmental organizations that receive money from outside Russia.
Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch says his group was just one of 220 targeted by the crackdown.
"Our office was inspected, as they call it, by four people for four hours on the 27th of March," he said.
Williamson says Russian agents came to the group's Moscow office unannounced and made photo copies of tax and personnel documents.
"The explanation by the Russian government and the Kremlin that this is standard procedure is really a fiction. It's not standard procedure at all. It's clearly aimed at intimidating this important and vibrant part of Russia," he said.
German media have compared the raid to those carried out by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in 1937 and 1938, when all foreign organizations were shut down.
For now, foreign-financed NGOs are being allowed to continue their work in Russia. But one of the most confusing raids was carried out against an NGO financed by Chancelor Merkel's Christian Democratic Party, says Russian-German political analyst Sergey Lagodinsky.
"My personal opinion is that something went terribly wrong there, because there was no reason to raid this foundation -- this foundation is actually the one that is close to Putin's former party, the United Russia Party," he said.
Lagodinsky said the raid on the Moscow office of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation was a major snub to Angela Merkel and served to chill further what was already a frosty relationship.
"The relationship between the Christian Democratic Party and the current Russian government - especially the president - is very chilly, and this is in grave contrast to the relationship between her predecessor, Chancellor Schröder and Putin, who were on very friendly terms. And, in fact, many people assume that the fact that Putin has arrived in Hannover today on the birthday of former Chancellor Schröder is also a reason - he wanted to congratulate former Chancellor Schröder on his birthday," he said.
Lagodinsky thinks that Chancellor Merkel will tread carefully on the Russia human rights issue, because Germany receives nearly 40% of its energy from Russia.
"The punch line of the Merkel government was that she wanted to be more distanced and critical of Russia. But, unfortunately, the Realpolitik that we are all part of cannot allow a German government to be more critical of Russia, because we are dependent on the gas and oil imports," he sadi.
But Hugh Williamson of Human Rights Watch says that if Ms. Merkel chooses to press Mr. Putin on NGO oppression and other rights issues, Russia will probably pull back.
"Russia does see Germany as an important political partner, they do have the strongest relationship within the EU, which goes beyond business and trade. And what Germany says does make a difference in Russia, as well as in the larger Russian society. Russia needs Germany as much as Germany needs Russia," he said.
Chancellor Merkel and President Putin are to open the Hannover Trade Fair on Monday. Tensions between the leaders could cast a pall over the event. But this isn't likely to affect the countries' vibrant trade relationship - nor the signing of contracts - at what's being billed as world's largest industrial trade fair.