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Russia Denies Merkel Event Canceled Over 'Looted Art'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 21.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum on June 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied a planned visit by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to a St. Petersburg exhibition has been canceled amid a spat over "looted art."

Speaking at a joint press conference with Merkel on June 21, Putin said both he and Merkel would visit the opening of the exhibition after initial scheduling problems were resolved.

Merkel was attending the International Economic Forum in St. Petersburg.

The exhibition at the Hermitage Museum includes German artwork seized by Soviet soldiers during World War II.

Earlier reports said Merkel would not be attending the June 21 event after Russia reportedly objected to remarks in which she planned to call for the artwork to be returned to Germany.

Putin said the issue of art seized during the war should not be "inflated."

Russia says that artwork seized from Germany has been paid for with the blood of its soldiers.

It also wants the return of art looted by the Nazis on Soviet territory.

Economic Amnesty

Meanwhile, Putin urged Russian legislators to adopt a bill on amnesty for first-time offenders convicted of business-related crimes.

He said in St. Petersburg that he expected the State Duma to pass the legislation before summer recess begins on July 5.

The Russian leader said the amnesty should not apply to people who have committed "crimes against the state, people, or property."

He also said the amnesty would not cover repeat offenders.

That suggests the amnesty would not apply to jailed former oil tycoon and Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who has been tried and convicted twice -- for tax evasion in 2005 and for embezzlement in 2010.

Khodorkovsky, who denies the charges, is expected to remain in jail until 2017. Critics say his conviction was politically motivated.

Putin said the amnesty was necessary to improve Russia's business climate. The proposed measure has been backed by Russia's business community.

Khodorkovsky's defense lawyer Vadim Klyuvgant said it looked as if the government was only trying to score public-relations points.

Klyuvgant told the Interfax news agency that "if this is being done for appearance, it should not be called an amnesty."

Lyudmila Alekseyeva, the veteran leader of the Moscow Helsinki Group, said the proposed measure was too limited. Alekseyeva was quoted as saying, "What kind of an amnesty is this if it does not cover anyone?"

In St. Petersburg, Putin also unveiled a $13 -billion stimulus plan for Russia's ailing infrastructure.

The St. Petersburg International Economic Forum is an annual showcase event in which Russia tries to attract foreign investment.

Putin: 'Kraft Who?'

Putin also told reporters in St. Petersburg that he did not remember allegedly stealing a valuable ring belonging to Robert Kraft, the owner of the U.S. National Football League's New England Patriots.

Answering a question regarding the ring at a news conference, Putin said he did not recall either Kraft or the ring.

Kraft said last week that in 2005 he showed Putin the $25,000 ring that team players received for winning the Super Bowl.

Kraft said that Putin took the ring in his hands and then slipped it in his pocket without his consent.

Putin said on June 21 that he could ask Russian jewelers to make an even more expensive ring for Kraft's team in order to solve what he called a "difficult international problem."

With reporting by Interfax, dpa, AP, AFP, and BBC
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