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The Dissident vs. The Dictator

New President Vaclav Havel meetscitizens after being elected at the Prague Castle.

New President Vaclav Havel meetscitizens after being elected at the Prague Castle.

In early July, news leaked that a German nonprofit organization, Quadriga, would bestow its annual honor -- given to "role Models for Germany" -- to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Yes, that Vladimir Putin, the man who, in his 11 years ruling Russia, has presided over the country's slide into authoritarianism, a withering of the rule of law, and a foreign policy of aggression toward its neighbors.

According to the German newspaper "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Quadriga selected Putin, whom it described as, "in the tradition of Peter the Great, a switchman in the direction of the future" for his fostering "stability through the interplay of prosperity, economy and identity." An outcry erupted in the German media, and a national leader of the country's Green Party, along with a respected historian, resigned from Quadriga's board of trustees.

But ultimately it was the threat from Vaclav Havel, playwright, anti-communist dissident and the first president of a free Czechoslovakia, to return the prize he had won in 2009 that persuaded the foundation to change course. The very same day that Havel's disapproval was reported by the Czech newspaper "Lidove noviny," Quadriga announced that it would cancel the award celebration, originally scheduled for October 3, the date that East and West Germany were reunified. The foundation said that it "most deeply" regretted the displeasure expressed by Havel, whose intervention was all the more stirring considering his poor physical condition: the former president has not made a public appearance since March. ("The truth is that Russia has become a threat to its neighbors," Havel told my co-blogger Michael Zantovsky for a "World Affairs" profile that appeared earlier this year. "I don't care whether this be considered liberal, or conservative, or progressive.")

Anyone with a passing understanding of contemporary Russia can understand the outrageousness of recognizing Vladimir Putin for a contribution to human rights. Doubly ironic is bestowing an award in recognition of the reunification of Germany to a former KGB officer who recruited Germans to spy on their countrymen. Stationed in Dresden from 1985 through 1990, Putin worked hand-in-hand with the Stasi, the East German secret police and one of the most ruthless intelligence services known to man, whose files, according to the historian Timothy Garton Ash, stretched for 110 miles when opened after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The initial decision to give Putin the award may owe partly to the fact that the vice chairman of Quadriga's selection committee, Lothar de Maiziere, was forced to resign from the cabinet of ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl over rumors that he had worked for the Stasi. But the Quadriga controversy was more than the result of some personal favor. And the organization's choice to rescind its prize to Putin at the behest of Havel is not only a story of the dueling reputations of world figures. The whole episode is illustrative of a worrying trend in German foreign policy that has seen it move closer to Russia at the expense of its traditional Western allies and the new democracies to its east.

Germany's relationship with Russia hinges on its heavy consumption of Russian-supplied gas. Germany, the industrial powerhouse of Europe, is the biggest customer of Gazprom, the Russian energy conglomerate, which Putin has assiduously used as an instrument of foreign policy over the past decade. German-Russian relations reached their peak under the former Social Democratic chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who once described Putin "an impeccable democrat." Just weeks after stepping down as chancellor in 2005, Schröder became chairman of the board of Nord Stream, a project that would transit Russian gas directly to Germany through a pipeline under the Baltic Sea. By avoiding land routes and bypassing transit countries in central and Eastern Europe, Nord Stream will allow Russia to cut off gas to these nations while continuing to ship it to Germany. Not for nothing did the late American congressman and human rights advocate Tom Lantos deem Schroeder a "political prostitute" in 2007.

Relations between the two countries thawed under Schroeder's Christian Democrat successor, Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany and was thus all-too-familiar with the reality of Russian dominance. But over the past five years, relations have slowly returned to the Schröder-esque status quo. When Putin's handpicked successor and puppet, President Dmitry Medvedev, mentioned the word "candidate" in passing during a speech at a conference in Hanover in July, Merkel replied, "Candidate, that's lovely to hear." With a Russian presidential election coming up next year, the remark was hardly accidental. This utterance amounted to, in the words of "International Herald Tribune" columnist John Vinocur, "an approximate political endorsement by a German chancellor of a nonannounced candidate for president" in a country where elections are a farce. More significant was Merkel's March decision, highly controversial within Germany, to abstain from the United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya, distancing Germany from France, the U.K., and the U.S. and putting it on the side of Russia and China.

To be sure, Germany has serious economic considerations to weigh regarding Russia that cannot be written off. But being Gazprom's largest customer and Russia's biggest trading partner comes with its own levers. Trade is a two-way street; without a German consumer, Gazprom and its subsidiaries would not be able to collect fees. The relationship between Germany and Russia, in other words, is one of co-dependence, and, on the German side, could become more independent were Berlin serious about weaning itself off Russian gas. The German government's knee-jerk decision in the aftermath of Japan's Fukushima disaster to end its use of nuclear power demonstrates a lack of seriousness when it comes to energy generation.

As with many aspects of contemporary German political life, another reason for Berlin's timorousness toward Moscow is in some part attributable to historic guilt from World War II, when Nazi forces committed heinous acts against Soviet citizens and starved millions of Soviet troops to death in Operation Barbarossa. It is this very sort of admirable, if at times misplaced, feeling of responsibility for the past, however, that doesn't exist in Russian leaders of the Putin mold. "There's a sense we should avoid conflict at any cost," Rolf Fuecks, director of the Heinrich Boll Foundation, recently told RFE/RL about the attitude of the German political establishment toward Russia. The uproar over the Quadriga award, however, indicates that many Germans do not approve of the way in which their country's foreign policy has been headed.

"People, your government has returned to you!" Havel triumphantly declared in his 1990 New Year's Address, his first major speech as president of a free Czechoslovakia. The loss of a human rights prize is hardly bound to make Vladimir Putin blanch; the former KGB man is not known for his sentimentality. But how fitting that a lifelong dissident who sacrificed so much to return government to his people should strike a blow for freedom against a dictator who has stolen government from his.

originally published in "World Affairs Journal"