Putin faces protest furor in Germany, Netherlands

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By TOBY STERLING and VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press

AMSTERDAM (AP) — Vladimir Putin faced hundreds of protesters ranging from gay rights activists to a topless feminist group during his visit to Germany and the Netherlands on Monday, but the Russian president appeared unruffled by the furor.

In Hannover, Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized Russia's human rights record at a press conference. Then activists from Ukraine's Femen group bared their torsos and ran at him shouting "Putin dictator!" before they were detained.

Putin shrugged off the protest later with what appeared to be a comment on the women's breasts and a swipe at Dutch protesters angry over Russian lawmakers' approval of a bill that bans gay "propaganda."

"I hadn't had time to have breakfast, so I would have liked it more if they showed some sausage or pork fat, not the beauties they showed," he said at a press conference in Amsterdam. "Thank God, the gays didn't strip naked here."

In Amsterdam, more than a thousand gay rights activists picketed outside his meeting with Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and rainbow flags around the city flew at half-staff.

Protesters booed and whistled at Putin's arrival at the Amsterdam arm of the Hermitage museum and Amnesty International blanketed the area with satirical signs and police tape proclaiming it a "human rights free zone" during Putin's visit.

The Russian bill makes gay public events and the dissemination of information about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to minors punishable by fines of up to $16,000. It still requires final approval by Parliament and would have to be signed by Putin to become law.

Rutte said he had told Putin during their meeting that for the Dutch, gay rights are "inextricably linked with human rights." In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to legalize gay marriage.

Putin deflected the criticism, claiming that gay rights are not abused in Russia.

"These people, like others, have all rights and freedoms," he said.

Russia decriminalized homosexuality in 1993, but homophobia remains strong and authorities routinely ban gay pride parades.

Russia's treatment of gays "is clearly very hotly debated," said Philip Tijsma, spokesman for the Netherlands' largest gay rights organization. "It's not only among the gay community, straight people are also very angry."

Mayor Eberhard van der Laan snubbed any meetings with Putin, saying he had "other commitments."

Putin's visit to the Netherlands was intended to showcase growing economic ties between the two countries. With $83 billion in bilateral trade last year, the Netherlands outpaced Germany to become Russia's No. 1 trading partner in Europe and its second biggest partner in the world after China.

The leaders Monday announced a deal between Gazprom and Royal Dutch Shell PLC to jointly develop gas fields above the Arctic circle in Siberia — a plan vehemently opposed by Greenpeace.

Amsterdam deputy mayor Andrée van Es said the city appreciates the importance of trade and was glad to host Putin, but it was sympathetic to the protesters.

"We see Russia as an important trading partner, but Amsterdam has an identity of what I call hyper-diversity... and we very much want to be able to express that, even to our important trading partners," she said in an interview.

The trip also kicks off a year of cultural exchanges. Putin and the Netherlands' Queen Beatrix opened an exhibition at the Hermitage dedicated to Peter the Great, the Russian czar who founded St. Petersburg and sought to open up closer ties with Europe.

Putin spent the morning with Merkel at an industry fair in Hannover, where she confronted him about Russia's crackdown on nongovernmental organizations.

"A lively civil society can only develop if individual organizations can work without fear and worry," Merkel said at a joint news conference with Putin.

Putin brushed the issue aside by saying his government just wants to know who funds such groups.

Leading Russian NGOs have pledged to boycott a bill that requires them to register as "foreign agents." Putin has responded by ordering wide-ranging checks of up to 2,000 NGOs across the country.

"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," Putin said.

He said NGOs in Russia had received nearly $1 billion from abroad.

"Maybe this money, which is quite a bit — a billion — could have been sent to help Cyprus and then it wouldn't have been necessary to fleece unfortunate depositors," Putin commented, referring to the European Union's complicated bailout for the island nation in which Russian depositors are expected to lose significant funds.

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Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin.

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