President Vladimir Putin reminded Russia’s biggest trade partners in Europe on Sunday and Monday how ambivalent they are about their economic relations with his country. Putin’s visit to Germany and the Netherlands was overshadowed by concerns in both nations about the deterioration of human rights in Russia.
The Dutch and Germans are major importers of Russian oil and natural gas and sell agricultural and industrial products, including cars, to the country but are uneasy about the Kremlin’s political interference in energy markets and the maltreatment of Russian gays and international human rights organizations in the country.
German chancellor Angela Merkel suggested in a speech on Sunday that her country could help Russia innovate and diversify its economy. “We believe this can happen most successfully when there is an active civil society,” she said.
We must intensify these discussions, develop our ideas and we must give the NGOs, who we know as a motor for innovation, a good chance in Russia.
Putin’s government sees many such nongovernmental organizations as agents of the West that aim to destabilize it. While aid and charitable organizations that “criticize the current authorities” are perfectly permissible, “the activities of ‘pseudo-NGOs’ and other agencies that try to destabilize other countries with outside support are unacceptable,” the Russian leader wrote last year.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, whose country was the first to legalize gay marriage in 2001, expressed concern about a law pending approval from the Russian parliament that would ban homosexual “propaganda” in Russia. “Gay rights are human rights,” he insisted during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart on Monday before arguing that the two countries could have different views on “such difficult topics” exactly because they have a strong relationship.
Amnesty International and gay rights movements staged demonstrations outside the Hermitage Amsterdam museum where Putin met the Netherlands’ Queen Beatrix.
In Germany, protesters carried Syrian flags to signal their displeasure with Russia’s support for the Levant country’s embattled leader, Bashar al-Assad, whose regime tried to suppress a popular uprising that has since morphed into an armed insurgency. Russia has resisted calls from countries like the United Kingdom and the United States to impose tougher international sanctions on Assad’s government.
Germany and the Netherlands are less confrontational than their American and British allies who have derided Russia for propping up a Middle Eastern dictator. Neither is keen to criticize Russian policy too vehemently as they depend on the country for hydrocarbon imports.
On the eve of Putin’s visit, the Netherlands’ economy minister announced that the Dutch-Russian joint venture Shtandart had agreed to invest some €800 billion in the construction of an oil terminal in the port of Rotterdam. 30 percent of crude oil and 45 percent of oil products shipped through Rotterdam harbor already originates in Russia. Germany, in turn, is a major recipient of oil and gas that flows through the Netherlands. Russia supplies more than a third of Germany’s natural gas consumption.
Germany’s dependence on Russian energy has created concerns in Eastern Europe about too close a relationship between the two countries that could jeopardize the interests of NATO states situated in between.
German policy toward Russia in recent years has seemingly harkened back to Willy Brandt’s Cold War Ostpolitik that assumed diplomatic engagement alone would help foster political change in the East. Only recent has Merkel adopted a more critical tone but not all members of her government are convinced that is appropriate.
“On the one hand, we don’t want to hold back on criticism regarding Russia’s internal development,” said Guido Westerwelle, the liberal party foreign minister, late last year, “but on the other hand we are very keen for the strategic partnership with Russia to be expanded.”
Dutch officials sound similarly ambivalent when they discuss their relationship with Russia. Foreign minister Frans Timmermans urged the country in February to reject its gay “propaganda” ban but has been more cautious in his criticisms than he was while a lawmaker for the now ruling Labor Party.
The Netherlands is currently the second-largest natural gas producer in Europe, after Norway, but estimates are that it will have to import in as little as ten years’ time. If it is to remain a pivotal distributor of gas in Europe, it can ill afford to alienate the Russians.