German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Friday clashed with Russian President Vladimir Putin over the jailing of feminist rock band Pussy Riot in a meeting aimed at soothing tensions over human rights.
At a Russian-German forum in Moscow ahead of formal talks, Putin took issue with German criticism of Russia's treatment of the women, two of whom have begun two-year sentences for performing an anti-Putin song in a church.
"We hear our partners, but they hear what happens from afar," said a visibly-irritated Putin.
"So the chancellor mentioned the girls who are in prison for performing in a church. But does she know that before one of them hung up an effigy of a Jew and said that we need to get rid of such people in Moscow?" Putin asked.
"You and I cannot support people who have anti-Semitic views," he told Merkel, who sat next to him in a chair looking uneasy.
He was apparently referring to a 2008 performance by political art group Voina, or War, in a Moscow hypermarket where they staged stylised lynchings of migrant workers and gay men to highlight discrimination against them.
Voina member Alexei Plutser-Sarno posted photographs of the protest on his blog and wrote that one of the gay men was Russian and one was Jewish.
Putin was responding after Merkel questioned if the women "would have received two years in a labour camp" in Germany. "Our (German-Russian) friendship will not be better if we sweep everything under the carpet," she said.
Two members of Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, are now serving two-year sentences in prison camps for hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for the performance in Moscow's main cathedral.
On her visit, Merkel must tread a fine line between expressing rights concerns and the need to protect Berlin's economic interests as a top client of state gas giant Gazprom as well as a leading investor in the overhaul of Russian infrastructure.
"I ask that not every bit of criticism is seen as destructive," said Merkel. "We want Russia to be successful."
On the eve of the visit, German lawmakers from Merkel's coalition urged the government to push for more democracy in Russia as they expressed concern over a crackdown on civil society since Putin's return to the Kremlin in May.
But Merkel, accompanied by eight ministers and a dozen business leaders, also has key economic priorities.
An official at the Russian Railways company, speaking to AFP off the record, said the company later Friday planned to announce a framework deal to buy around 700 locomotives from Siemens.
Spokespeople at Russian Railways and Siemens declined to comment but analysts say the deal could be worth several billion dollars.
A week before the talks, German lawmakers passed a resolution urging the government to push for more democracy and warning of a "confrontational course towards government critics" in Russia.
Moscow has been particularly needled by the public comments of Andreas Schockenhoff, the government's coordinator for German-Russian, who has shown no fear in taking issue with the Russian rights record and is accompanying Merkel to Moscow.
In a sign of the tensions, Shockenhoff's office said he had been denied access to the Russian parliament and had also not been granted any meeting with officials at the Russian foreign ministry.
A fluent German speaker who spent five years as a KGB agent in Dresden, Putin has long prided himself on building a solid working relationship with Merkel.
He conspicuously made Berlin his first European destination after his inauguration in May yet relations with Merkel have lacked the warmth seen under her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder.