Opinion: The Kremlin′s political needling | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 22.06.2013
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Opinion: The Kremlin's political needling

A joint exhibition opening with both Merkel and Putin? Or not? A cancellation due to deadlines? Or due to content? DW's Ingo Mannteufel comments on the rollercoaster of emotions that is German-Russian relations.

That German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin ended up opening the exhibition "Bronze Age: Europe Without Borders" together in St. Petersburg on Friday (21.06.2013) is a good sign. In the end, this exhibition is finally doing what should be done with the artwork that was taken from Germany to Russia after World War II: The works have finally been made available to the public.

Ingo Mannteufel Photo: DW / Henriksen

Ingo Manteufel heads DW's Russian department

To start with, this is a great success, a project which a group of German and Russian museums have jointly organized for some time. What should be separated from this is the legal assessment of the "trophy art," as it's referred to in Germany. In strictly legal terms, Germany has never given up its claim to these works of art that were taken by the Soviet leadership to Russia after 1945. The German position has remained the same for years. And this was known to the Russians and Putin, as work began on the exhibition several years ago.

A scandal threatens - and is averted

It is, therefore, irritating how it could come to this rollercoaster of emotions on Friday. In the morning, everything seemed to point toward a scandal, as German media reported the sudden cancellation of the joint opening of the exhibition. The Kremlin supposedly did not want to give Merkel time for a greeting. In response, the chancellor had apparently canceled her participation at the opening before her departure for St. Petersburg.

But in the press conference following the international economic forum - the actual main reason for Merkel's visit to Russia - she explained that the issue had been resolved through a "direct conversation between her and the Russian president." Putin chimed in, downplaying the whole affair. Later still, the joint exhibition opening took place, including the opening remarks.

All just a misunderstanding? No, not exactly. Such a day leaves a bitter aftertaste. It gives the impression that Putin wanted to offend the German chancellor by forbidding her to reiterate the German position on the looted art at the exhibition opening. This little diplomatic affront failed, and brings to mind the search carried out by Russian state authorities at the offices of German foundations in St. Petersburg a few days before Putin's visit to the Hanover trade fair in April.

What's behind this Kremlin needling? It's Putin's answer to the criticism by leading German politicians of his repressive and conservative domestic policy. Putin sees this as an unacceptable interference in Russia's internal affairs. Just a few weeks ago, German President Joachim Gauck strongly criticized the deficits in Russia's rule of law and the restrictions on the media.

Merkel's bold rejection of the exhibition opening was a clear sign to Putin to end his political needling. At least this time, the Russian president understood that he had gone too far.