Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lightning European visit this week will be remembered more for the unusual turn of the protests that accompanied it than for the economic and cultural talks featured on its agenda.
First stop, on Monday, was Hannover Messe, an annual trade and technology fair in the northern German city whose opening Putin – as the representative of the fair’s partner country this year – attended with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and, as it turned out, a group of female protesters from Ukrainian feminist group Femen.
The four women bypassed security to confront him with shouts and with their upper bodies bare except for slogans in Russian and English that read “f*** dictator” and “partakers in crime”. While photographs of the protest showed Merkel in open-mouthed surprise, Putin is seen smiling and putting two thumbs up.
“I don’t see anything terrible about it,” he was reported as saying after the protesters were removed. Stunt participant Oleksandra Shevchenko gave a less flattering assessment in a telephone interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty: “He reacted with idiotic astonishment mixed with a smile and a stupid expression on his face.”
Femen, which is celebrating this week the fifth anniversary of its increasingly global activist movement, describes itself as carrying out an ideological war in favour of freedom, modernity and the right to free expression, and against religion, the sex industry and, as highlighted on Monday, dictatorship.
Merkel not mute
Merkel, despite noting the enduring economic relations between Germany and Russia worth an estimated EUR 74 billion last year, warned Putin against taking his country down the wrong path, highlighting concerns over Russia’s human rights record.
Outside the convention centre, some 100 demonstrators organised by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) rallied peacefully to call on Moscow to end what HRW billed as the worst crackdown on non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Russia in the last two decades.
Authorities march on
Russian authorities filed on Tuesday a legal case against independent election watchdog Golos for alleged failure to declare itself as a “foreign agent”.
Legislation passed last year requires NGOs receiving funding from overseas and deemed to be involved in political activities to register under this label.
Golos, which used to receive part of its funding from the United States Agency for International Develop-ment (USAID), denies that it has received any foreign funding since the legislation was passed, and rejects the foreign agent registration requirement as absurd and undermining credibility.
But it is only one of some 200 Russian and international NGOs and human rights groups to have come under renewed pressure in recent weeks with unannounced inspections by prosecutors and tax officials.
Rash of laws
Other recently passed laws deemed to be of concern include restrictions on freedom of assembly, the re-criminalisation of certain types of libel, limits on freedom of information on the internet and a proposed bill that, if passed by the Duma (lower chamber of parliament) and signed by Putin, would allow fines for people disseminating “propaganda for homosexuality among minors”.
It is this law that gave the impetus to the demonstrations that accompanied Putin on the second stop of his journey, also on Monday. Thousands of protesters waving rainbow-coloured flags and posters turned out in Amsterdam to greet Putin as he prepared to visit an exhibition on 17th-century Russian monarch Peter the Great at Hermitage Amsterdam, a new satellite of St Petersburg’s famous museum.
City officials joined the protest, with rainbow flags – symbols of the gay rights movement – lowered to half-mast across the city.
“We have a large gay community in Amsterdam and we want to make sure in our city that everybody can live the way they want and be whoever they are, and we want to make sure that everybody in the world knows that, also our partners,” an Amsterdam deputy mayor told Euronews.