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Gay rights activists, topless protesters greet Putin

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin lay a wreath at the Cemetery of Honour on the north bank of the Maschse
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin lay a wreath at the Cemetery of Honour on the north bank of the Maschse

By Alexei Anishchuk and Thomas Escritt

HANOVER, Germany/AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin laughed off a protest against him by topless women in Germany on Monday, joking that he liked what he had seen, and was later greeted by gay rights protesters in Amsterdam.

Putin's visit to Germany and the Netherlands, Moscow's biggest trade partners in Europe was supposed to focus on trade but comes at an awkward time after a wave of state inspections of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations in Russia that has been much criticized abroad.

The nations need Russia for energy and as a market for exports but are uneasy about Putin's treatment of opponents and activists in his new Kremlin term.

Three members of the women's rights group Femen, which has staged protests against Russia's detention of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot around Europe, disrupted his visit to a trade fair in the German city of Hanover focusing on Russian business.

They stripped to the waist and shouted slogans calling the Russian leader a "dictator" before being covered up and bundled away by security men.

"Regarding this performance, I liked it," grinned Putin at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, adding that it had helped to promote the trade fair.

"I did not catch what they were shouting, I did not even see if they were blondes, brunettes or chestnut-haired ..."

In Amsterdam, many houses and bridges in the historic canal district were draped with banners and the rainbow flag of the gay pride movement, protesting about what human rights organizations say is institutional repression of gays in Russia.

"Putin go homo," read one, echoing the message "Putin go home" on the front page of Friday's leading daily newspaper NRC Next.

Other activists festooned the area around Amsterdam's Hermitage Museum, an offshoot of the St Petersburg Hermitage, with posters drawing attention to what they said were abuses committed by Putin's government.

Esther Noyon, a music student living in a flat near the museum - which was the first stop on Putin's visit to the Netherlands - hung gay pride flags on her building, while residents in a flat opposite played gay anthems at top volume.

ECONOMIC TIES

Putin, who began his six-year third term as president last May, arrived in Amsterdam to meet Queen Beatrix and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte after holding talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Hanover.

They want to further boost booming economic ties but the German leader also repeated her concerns about human rights in Russia after raids by Russian authorities on German and other non-governmental organizations based in the country.

Russia's new law on NGOs requires them to register as "foreign agents" if they have foreign funding and are deemed to be involved in politics, something many groups have refused to do, saying they are not acting on behalf of other nations and are not trying to influence Russian politics.

For many, the term evokes Soviet-era oppression and Cold War espionage.

Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, said people in a free society had the right to protest.

"This is about NGOs being able to work well and freely ... A lively civil society can only emerge when individuals can operate without fear or worry, of course on the basis of law," Merkel said.

Putin, a former KGB agent who worked in East Germany in the 1980s and speaks fluent German, denied that the Kremlin was trying to muzzle the NGOs and said Moscow just wanted to monitor the amounts of foreign funding coming into Russia.

"All our actions are connected not with closing and forbidding (foreign-funded NGOs in Russia), but with monitoring financial flows that go to non-governmental Russian organizations which are involved in internal political activity, and this money comes from outside of the country," he said.

"Regarding the freedom of work of these organizations, it is not limited at all. They only have to register."

Putin said nearly 1 billion dollars had flowed to Russian NGOs in just four months since Moscow approved the new law - a figure swiftly queried by NGOs in Moscow.

"The talk of $1 billion is a lie," Pavel Chikov, the head of Agora, a Russian legal aid NGO, said on Twitter.

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Alison Williams)

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