German Chancellor Angela Merkel clashed Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the two-year jail sentences imposed on two members of the female punk band Pussy Riot for performing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral.
Visiting the Kremlin for a Russian-German business forum, Chancellor Merkel expressed Germany's concern about the passage of laws in Russia that could be used to stifle dissent.
“And I think that not every criticism should be understood as destructive. We are bothered, and I'm saying it too, that a number of laws were adopted recently (in Russia) which I can not see as promoting free groups, for example; we are concerned and we ask questions about it, and we will talk about it later.''
But President Putin said Germany and Russia's other partners only hear what happens from afar. He accused one of the Pussy Riot band members of taking part in a previous performance art demonstration that he described as anti-Semitic.
“As for political and ideological issues, we hear our partners. But they hear about what's happening from very far away. Madam Federal Chancellor brought up the girls who are in prison for their performance in a church, but does she know that, before that, one of them hung an effigy of a Jew and said, 'Moscow ought to be rid of these people'? We can't support people who have an anti-Semitic position.''
Despite tensions at the forum, Russian and German officials signed a series of economic deals in energy, transport and other fields.
The annual gathering, known as the St. Petersburg Dialogue, came after German lawmakers passed a resolution last week urging the government to push for more democracy in Russia. They expressed concern about a crackdown on civil society since Mr. Putin returned to the presidency in May.
Mr. Putin has faced vocal protests at home and tough criticism from abroad since taking over his third term as Russia's president. Rights groups accuse his administration of stifling freedoms and cracking down on dissent. Most recently, Russia's new laws on treason and slander have raised widespread concerns for restricting contact with foreign organizations.
Mr. Putin in turn has accused his critics, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of interfering in Russia's internal affairs and of seeking to stir foment.
Germany depends on Russia for a large portion of its gas and oil supplies and is one of Russia's biggest trading partners. This forces the German leader to tread carefully when dealing with Mr. Putin, who is known to resent criticism.
Ms. Merkel comes from the former East Germany, which was part of the former Soviet bloc, and speaks Russian. Mr. Putin spent several years in East Germany as a former KGB agent and speaks German. But observers say that despite the common experience behind the Iron Curtain, the two leaders have not developed a close personal relationship.