Chilled relations between Germany and Russia threatened to hit a new low, as Chancellor Merkel's visit to St. Petersburg was overshadowed by an uproar over looted art.
It's not often that the German chancellor cancels a scheduled speech at short notice. It's even less likely that the speech ends up going ahead in the end.
On Friday (21.06.2013), it was announced that German Chancellor Angela Merkel would not be attending the opening of a German-Russian exhibition "Bronze Age - Europe Without Borders" in the famous Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. But a few hours later came the U-turn: Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin ended up opening the exhibition together.
Merkel's main reason for coming to St. Petersburg was to participate in an international economic forum. The opening of the exhibition was a side event which suddenly took center stage. German media spoke of a "scandal," and even Russian journalists were surprised.
Merkel calls for return of 'trophy art'
At issue was the artwork presented in the joint exhibition by three Russian and two German museums, which consists largely of so-called "trophy art." About 600 of the 1,700 exhibits had previously been in German possession, brought to the Soviet Union by the Red Army after World War II. Merkel has called for these treasures to be returned.
"We are of the opinion that these exhibits should come back to Germany," said the chancellor said at the exhibition opening on Friday evening.
Russia, however, has since decreed the artwork as national property paid for with blood during the war and has therefore rejected any return to Germany. Putin reiterated this stance in St. Petersburg on Friday, saying the museum cooperation should be appreciated and the topic of trophy art should be dropped.
As late as midday, Merkel was not planning to attend the show. A spokesman for the German government, Georg Streiter, said Russia had called off the event, saying "it was impossible for the host to find the time." The Russians had proposed cancelling the event, said Streiter - in other words, Putin did not want to give Merkel any time for an opening speech. The Russian president had apparently given Merkel "relatively short notice."
Relations cool between Berlin and Moscow
The irritation of Merkel's canceled, the reinstated speech is another sign of the cooling relations between Germany and Russia. Since Putin took office as president in May 2012, a steady stream of criticism concerning Russia's internal political developments has come out of Berlin. It culminated in a resolution by the German Parliament in the fall wherein representatives expressed their concerns over new legislation in Russia, which in their view was putting parts of civil society under pressure. Russia refused to tolerate any criticism.
Some experts have warned that the cooling political relations could have an adverse effect on economic relations. Until now, only good news has come from that sector. But those sentiments could change. On Friday, Putin commented that the climate for German investors in Russia could be better.
"The government and all authorities must help to improve the situation," Putin said at the economic forum, with Merkel speaking of legal issues in Russia in particular.
At a joint press conference, Putin and Merkel were nevertheless confident that the economic relationship between the two countries could improve, both agreeing that the trade volume of 80 billion euros ($105 billion) achieved in 2012 could be increased to 100 billion euros.