German Chancellor Angela Merkel confronted Russia's president with her concerns about a crackdown on non-governmental organizations, but Vladimir Putin brushed the issue aside by repeating that his government needs to know who is funding the groups.
Putin met with Merkel at an industry fair in Hannover. The trip highlights Russia's interest in developing foreign trade, including further business ties with Germany, but ties have been strained lately by the Kremlin's heavy-handed response to opposition groups and pressure on NGOs. Two German think-tanks were among groups targeted in recent searches.
"What is important, at least this is what I made clear, is that nongovernmental organizations can work well and freely," said Merkel, the first foreign leader to publicly confront Putin about the issue since Russian authorities launched raids of NGOs earlier this year.
"A lively civil society can only develop if individual organizations can work without fear and worry," Merkel said said at a news conference with Putin after they toured the industry fair. The chancellor, who argues that a strong civil society enhances economic modernization, insisted that "societies will always have to live with differing opinions."
A law enacted last year in Russia requires all NGOs that receive funds from abroad and engage in vaguely defined political activities to register as "foreign agents," a term evoking Cold War-era espionage connotations.
Leading Russian NGOs have pledged to boycott the bill. Putin responded by ordering wide-ranging checks of up to 2,000 NGOs across the country to check their compliance with the law.
On Monday, he brushed aside criticism of Russia's legislation and actions.
"We aren't trying to put anyone under control, but we want to know how much money, through what channels and for what purpose, is being sent," he said. "Russia has passed a law on that and everyone will obey it."
"Our action is aimed not toward bans, but to impose control over financial flows from abroad," he said, adding that NGOs in Russia had got nearly $1 billion from abroad and "the public has the right to know where from and for what purpose this money flows."
Among others targeted were two German think-tanks — the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is aligned with Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, and the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, linked to the opposition Social Democrats.
Merkel said their work is "to our knowledge, entirely proper." Putin said Russia had no intention of limiting their work.
As the two leaders toured the fair, several activists from Ukraine's Femen group, bared their torsos and shouted "Putin dictator!" before being detained by guards.
A smiling Putin shrugged off the protest.
"As for the action, I liked it," he said. "You should be grateful to the girls, they are helping you make the fair more popular."
Merkel was not amused. "Whether one has to resort to such an emergency measure in Germany and can't say one's piece some other way, I have my doubts," she said.
Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin.