Vladimir Putin was an hour late for his meeting with Angela Merkel in Berlin today. But when his motorcade crossed the Moltke Bridge and looped around the Chancery along Willy Brandt Strasse, it wasn’t moving faster than 40 kilometers per hour (25 mph).
I was standing on the side of the street with an American colleague and two disoriented tourists as Putin’s Mercedes stretch limousine crept by behind an escort of seven policemen in green pants and white tunics atop BMW motorcycles in matching colors.
In Moscow, Putin’s motorcade thunders through emptied streets at three times the speed. Such extreme security measures were unnecessary in Berlin today. The handful of ill-wishers who had come out to meet him had been relegated to a spot just off the motorcade’s route. The rest of the city was going about its business as usual.
Whatever the reason for the delay, every foreign leader (and Putin pool reporter) knows that he is never, ever on time. Putin arrived in Berlin from Minsk, where he had spent the night as a guest of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko. Russian state television showed Putin laying a wreath at a World War II memorial this morning, a ceremony which couldn’t have taken more than 30 minutes.
The symbolism was clear: Merkel, Germany and the West can wait – and not just an hour but two whole weeks. After all, Putin was originally supposed to arrive at the G8 summit at Camp David on May 18. But in a snub to Barack Obama, who didn’t hurry to congratulate him on his election victory, Putin abruptly canceled and made the first foreign visit of his third presidential term to neighboring Belarus.
I was curious about the protest mood among Russian-speaking expats in Berlin. After the collapse of communism, millions of people – ethnic Germans and Russian-speaking Jews – immigrated to Germany from the former Soviet Union. Germany’s close trade ties with Russia are reinforced by countless intertwined human destinies, including Putin’s.
Over the past week I followed as a group called iDecembrists – a dual reference to Russia’s failed 1825 uprising and the anti-government protests that broke out in Moscow last December – discussed organizational issues on a closed internet forum, from the printing of flyers to the purchase of whistles.
This morning I checked out the actual protest.
When I got to the Chancery, a klutzy monstrosity not far from where the Berlin Wall once stood, policemen were setting up metal barriers along the sidewalk next to the main entrance. A man held a Russian flag over one of the barriers with the words “Putin is a thief” written on it in Russian. A line of schoolchildren trailed out of the Chancery.
According to the schedule, Putin was due to arrive in 15 minutes. It was already clear that wasn’t going to happen.
The approved demonstration was farther down Willy Brandt Strasse, in front of one of the glass-and-steel Bundestag office buildings. The Chancery courtyard was 100 meters away, separated by the street, some scrubby grass and a delicate-looking metal fence.
Three separate groups had decided to demonstrate against Putin’s visit: exile Syrians protesting Kremlin support for the Assad regime, the local chapter of Amnesty International and young Russians who had made Berlin their home.
Two dozen people had come bearing the Syrian flag and printed posters that read “Stop Backing Assad” in English, German, Russian and Arabic. Shortly before noon, a couple of young Syrian men started leading chants with the help of a portable amplifier. One man began beating a drum.
“Freedom for Syria!” they shouted in German. “Freedom for Russia!”
“Putin finances; Assad bombs!”
I grabbed one of the organizers, a 26-year-old Syrian Kurd who had come to Germany 16 years ago. He gave his name only as Mohamed A.
“It’s crazy that a head of state can support such a massacre and that people are killed just because of money,” Mohamed said. He was wearing a Syrian flag around his neck and had another one attached to a flagpole above a German tricolor.
Not only Syrians had turned out, but Jordanians, Iranians and even a Somali, he said.
One double-decker sightseeing bus after the other passed by. Women with wispy white hair and sunglasses stared down at the little rally. An elderly Middle Eastern man started bellowing into the microphone in incomprehensible English. The only words I could make out were “Putin, go to hell!”
Twenty minutes later, Putin had neither arrived nor gone anywhere, but the man was still raving.
“Why don’t you finally stop!” a woman called from the group of Amnesty International members, mostly earnest, elderly Germans. Some wielded yellow signs demanding respect for Russians’ constitutional right to assembly and an end to Russian arms shipments to Syria. Others held up portraits of murdered Russian human rights activists Natalya Estemirova and Anna Politkovskaya.
The Russians were the most numerous at the rally, about 40. They were also the most original, bringing homemade signs and paintings like their cohorts in Moscow. Somebody had even made a papier-mâché head of Putin with a tiny crown on it.
Leo Wacker, 33, was in charge of making sure everything ran smoothly.
When a fellow in a red sweatshirt appeared with a sign reading “Hitler/Putin/Lukashenko,” Wacker turned him away. The young man skulked away and stood off to the side.
“We’re talking about freedom and respect for human rights, not only in Russia but everywhere,” said Wacker, who immigrated to Germany 17 years ago from Moscow. He runs his own real estate business and is active in the FDP, Germany’s liberal party.
Forty-five minutes after Putin was supposed to inspect the honor guard in front of the Chancery, a military band came marching into the courtyard. I left the demonstrators, crossed the street and joined a crowd of onlookers behind a red rope that marked the outer perimeter of the security zone. There were easily three times as many tourists as demonstrators, who were now blowing furiously on their whistles.
Assuming that Putin had somehow arrived via a back entrance, I started to make my way home across the wasteland between the Chancery and the main train station.
I overheard a group of German teenagers in dreadlocks walking behind me.
“Russia is sort of like East Germany used to be,” a girl explained. “In Russia, you even get arrested if you demonstrate against homophobia.”
Her companion expressed disbelief.
Then I bumped into my colleague who was rushing to the Putin-Merkel press conference.
And that’s how I ended up running into Putin’s motorcade. Our paths intersected because I had left too early, and he had come too late.