Merkel, Putin meet amid tension over rights issues

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday shot back at visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel for raising questions about the imprisonment of the Pussy Riot punk provocateurs, suggesting she was poorly informed about the group's true nature.

The exchange at a Russian-German business forum in Moscow came in the wake of growing German criticism of Russia's human rights record and its moves to crack down on dissent.

Germany's parliament passed a resolution last week that linked Russia's rollback on democratic freedoms to Putin's return to the presidency in May and urged the German government to take a tougher stance in dealing with Russia.

Asked about German criticism of Russia's human rights and democracy record, Merkel said it reflected Germany's sense of engagement and its deep interest in Russia's development.

"It won't make our friendship better if we sweep everything under the carpet and don't discuss it," Merkel said, adding that not all criticism should immediately be viewed as destructive.

At the forum, Merkel raised cautious criticism of the two-year prison sentences imposed on two members of the band Pussy Riot for a guerrilla performance in Moscow's main cathedral of a so-called "punk prayer" entreating the Virgin Mary to save Russia from Putin.

"Having to go to a prison camp for two years for that - this would not have happened in Germany," she added.

But Putin asked whether Merkel knew that one of the women had previously taken part in a performance-art demonstration where several dolls representing migrant workers and homosexuals, one of them also identified as Jewish, were hung from nooses.

The 2008 demonstration was actually in support of those groups, but Putin interpreted it differently.

"We cannot support, with you, people who take an anti-Semitic position," Putin said. That argument bore echoes of the band members' convictions on charges that the cathedral performance was hooliganism to debase a religion.

The Kremlin has launched a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent since Putin's inauguration for a third presidential term in May, issuing a series of repressive bills intended to discourage people from taking part in unauthorized protests, re-criminalize slander, impose new tight restrictions on non-government organizations and widely expand the definition of treason.

Merkel said after later talks with Putin in the Kremlin that she expressed her concern about Russia's legislative moves, adding that a frank discussion was essential to improve mutual understanding.

Putin, in his turn, lashed out at the European Union's energy market regulations intended to boost competition in the energy market, describing it as "harmful" and discriminatory against Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly, Gazprom.

At the same time, Putin emphasized a desire to forge even closer economic ties with Germany, Russia's No. 1 trading partner. After the meeting, Russian and German officials signed a series of agreements in energy, transport and other spheres.

Germany's foreign minister said prior to the talks that Merkel was taking a balanced approach to relations with Moscow.

"On the one hand, we don't want to hold back on criticism regarding Russia's internal development, but on the other hand we are very keen for the strategic partnership with Russia to be expanded," Guido Westerwelle told Deutschlandfunk radio on Friday.

Westerwelle said Germany also has foreign policy interests that involve Russia. Despite differences over the civil war in Syria, he stressed that there were areas in which the two countries work closely together, such as in efforts to address concerns over Iran's nuclear program.