Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Germany was notable for a number of reasons. First, he shrugged off German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s expression of concern over his crackdown on non-governmental institutions. Second, his visit was an indication of how important Russia’s economy has become for Germany and Western Europe. And finally, his visit made headlines around the world when hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Hannover and Amsterdam to protest his presence and his policies. One eye-catching stunt involved topless feminists in Hannover.
Putin went to Germany earlier this month for talks with Merkel and to participate in the opening of the Hannover Messe (Hannover Fair) before going to to the Netherlands. The Hannover Messe, founded in 1947, is the world’s most important technology and industrial exposition. Last year it drew 200,000 visitors. Putin’s stop there made sense.
He and Merkel had much to discuss. Russian-German trade in 2012 reached a record $73.9 billion. The two countries intend to increase the figure to $100 billion in the near future. Indeed, Germany is Russia’s second largest trading partner (after China).
About 175 Russian companies were represented at the Hannover Fair. They included energy giant Gazprom; Rosneft, the world’s largest publicly owned oil company; Rosnano, the nanotechnology state corporation; Skolkovo, the technology innovation center; Uralvagonzavod, Russia’s top military-industrial corporation, railways and more.
Putin made it clear prior to his visit that he sees Germany as Russia’s “primary European partner.” It is also worth noting that Russia provides energy-hungry Germany with 40 percent of its natural gas and 30 percent of its oil.
Merkel took advantage of Putin’s presence to remind him on several occasions of the importance of an “open society.” In particular, she had in mind Putin’s crackdown on non-governmental institutions that which in many cases has involved Russian auditors going through organizations’ books to learn the sources of their funding. Merkel was especially upset about searches of the buildings of two of Germany’s top think tanks, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. These foundations are owned by Germany’s two leading political parties, one of which is Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union.
Domestically, Merkel had been under considerable pressure to raise human rights issues with Putin. Some Germans believe that economic progress should be based on Russians’ respect for human rights, although most experts would argue that economic factors have become far too important to permit human rights concerns to get in the way.
In any case, Putin would have none of it. He brushed the issue aside, arguing that the Russian government has every right to know who supports such organizations and claimed that other governments (he named the United States — which was a distortion) also check on organizations that are supported by foreign governments.
The only other foreign policy issue discussed publicly was Syria. Putin called on all countries to stop providing arms to the country. However, he made clear that he considers Russia to be in a special position, “We supply the legitimate regime. This is not prohibited by international law.”
The event that received most attention during his visit came when he was confronted by topless women from the Ukraine’s Femen group, who yelled “Putin dictator!” and “f———dictator.” Security personnel were apparently caught off guard as the women stripped and ran toward Putin and Merkel. In a photo in international circulation, Putin has a strange look of pleasant surprise on his face. He said, “As for the action, I liked it. You should be grateful to the girls, they are helping you make the fair more popular.”
Merkel was not amused. She said, “Whether one has to resort to such emergency measures in Germany and can’t say one’s piece some other way, I have my doubts.”
It is clear that German-Russian economic ties are becoming increasingly important. One must keep in mind that although Russia still has major problems, it is no longer the “sick man of Europe” that it was five or 10 years ago.
It is back, especially in the energy sector, and all of Europe is becoming increasingly dependent on the Kremlin for fuel.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.