German Chancellor Angela Merkel surprised Russian President Vladimir Putin when she used her visit to Moscow to criticize the jailing of the punk rock band Pussy Riot.
Merkel was channeling a resolution passed by the German Bundestag that was critical about Russia's recent record on human rights. "We are concerned about a number of recent laws that don't, as far as I can see, advance the right of people to freely organize," Merkel told Putin.
The Russians, for their part, complained via presidential spokesman Dmitry S. Pskov about "the heightened anti-Russian rhetoric in Germany in recent weeks or even months." However, the spokesperson believed that the substantial economic interest between the two countries would act as an "airbag" to cushion relations between the two countries.
The Chancellor softened the blow by concluding business deals with the Russians worth billions and by telling the Russian president to lighten up by remarking that if she could not take criticism at home, she would be out of a job within 3 days.
Nevertheless this was a far cry from the era of Chancellor Helmut Schroeder, Dr. Merkel's predecessor, who was effectively Russia's lawyer in Europe and was rewarded after leaving office with a cushy Russian job. There was talk of a strategic partnership.
When Schroeder was succeeded by Merkel, there was expectation that Merkel, who had grown-up in East Germany, would be more assertive on the human rights issues. During the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, Germany hoped that Medvedev was sincere and had the power to achieve democratization in Russia. This hope is gone.
One can attribute the change in German policy to two major factors. Objectively, Russia is cracking down on dissent more severely since the demonstrations that followed Vladimir Putin's reelection. A no less important factor is the weakening of the Russian energy stranglehold, particularly in terms of natural gas.
During the era of Helmut Schroeder, the Russian gas behemoth Gazprom, that frequently acted as an arm of Russian foreign policy, accounted for 50% of the supply to Western Europe. Now the figure is down to one third. Because of the gas glut, European utilities are asking for and getting price cuts. In a buyer's market, Russia needs Europe more and the old self-censorship is weakened.
If the Kremlin can reconcile itself to an era of mutual criticism (Vladimir Putin has consistently demonstrated that he can give as good as he can get), it could have the last laugh on the dissidents.
The dissidents will derive cold comfort from a Western policy that while critical of Putin engages in business as usual. The criticism will then become part of a diplomatic ritual and little more.