Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's award closet must be crammed. It holds his judo trophies, Time magazine's "Person of the Year" award, the Grand Croix of France's Legion of Honor and the highest civilian honors of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. And, from Germany, he already has the "Order of Saxon Gratitude," which the eastern city of Dresden awarded him in 2009 for reportedly promoting cultural relations between Russia and Germany.
But just a week after news emerged that he might have to make room for another German award, the deal is off.
Some two weeks ago Germany's Süddeutsche Zeitung revealed that Werkstatt Deutschland, a Berlin-based nonprofit organization, was planning to present Putin with its Quadriga Prize on Oct. 3, the day on which Germany's celebrates its reunification. Since 2003, the private organization has used the prestigious award to annually honor a handful of "role models who are committed to enlightenment, commitment and welfare," according to its website. The prize is in the shape of a chariot drawn by four horses -- or a "quadriga" -- like the statue on top of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.
On Saturday, the sponsoring organization responded to a storm of criticism from the media and politicians by not only canceling Putin's award, but also "regrettably" calling off this year's entire award ceremony. In a statement on its website, the organization said that it was "concerned by the massive criticism" and made the decision under "increasingly unbearable pressure."
By then, a number of members of the prize board had stepped down, and Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson had returned his award. But what really seems to have tipped the scales is when former Czech President Vaclav Havel threatened to return his 2009 award if Putin received this year's honor. Other former award winners include political leaders such as Shimon Peres, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Hamid Karzai, plus a number of notable actors, authors, architects, activists, scientists and filmmakers.
Downplayed by the Government
Officials in Berlin have kept mostly mum on the issue, perhaps trying to avoid any controversy as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other senior government officials meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Hanover and Wolfsburg on Monday and Tuesday for the annual Petersburg Dialogue talks on Russian-German relations.
Still, Merkel spokesman Steffen Seibert told journalists on Monday that the government did not view the prize cancellation as an affront, adding that Merkel would begin the German-Russian consultations "with confidence."
But Russia's ambassador to Germany, Vladimir Grinin, was displeased. While the situation was unlikely to overshadow the talks, it was still "highly disagreeable and rude," he told German public broadcaster ARD on Monday.
"I regret it very much," he added.
Marieluise Beck, an expert on Russian and Eastern European affairs for the Green Party's parliamentary group, said she was relieved Putin would not receive the prize.
"It's only regrettable that it ever got so far that the organization considered Putin prize-worthy at all," Beck told daily Berliner Zeitung, adding that it should have considered President Medvedev instead. "Medvedev is always saying that democracy and modernization belong together in Russia," she told the paper.
In Monday's newspapers, German commentators weigh in on the scandal:
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"(The members of the board of the Quadriga Prize) stubbornly believe it was right to choose Putin for the award; they just couldn't bear the pressure anymore. … The small-minded people behind it blatantly disregarded all the warnings. They didn't care that the man they chose to honor has his political opponents locked up. It's all the same to them that Putin has perfected the police state. They also showed no sympathy for those whose rights … were trampled by their hero."
"The Petersburg Dialogue meetings are currently being held again, and -- as happens every year -- they are being advertised as a meeting of civil societies. The German side in this will mostly buy into the Russian definition of civil society, which holds that the state determines who is a part of civil society. Behind this definition is a way of thinking not unlike that held by the Quadriga (prize) organizers. According to this mind-set, whatever pleases those in power in Moscow is helpful for German-Russian relations."
"People who criticize this stance are dismissed as naïve. They are admonished that it isn't Germany's job to democratize Russia. That's correct. But it's even less its job to wrap an authoritarian system in a democratic mantle."
The center-right Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung writes:
"By selecting Putin, (the award's) curious board … did not show itself as being particularly sensitive to human rights issues. … The fact that some of its members have now stepped down and that (this year's) award ceremony has been cancelled altogether … is proof that they failed to see how this could turn into a massive embarrassment. Moscow speaks of 'chaos within the jury,' but one that will have no effect on Russian-German relations. The would-be role-model scouts would be well-advised to completely dissolve this self-important society."
The Financial Times Deutschland writes:
"In reality, such awards for politicians already known around the world are superfluous and should be done away with. There is no connection between the growing number of such prizes and their actual meaning. The prizes only serve as self-gratification for the organizations behind them, a way to confirm their own sense of importance …"
"Above all, prizes should be used to highlight the merits of less-known individuals, as was the case with the latest winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. With their decision, the (Nobel) committee … made far more of a difference that any Quadriga Prize … could, or would even want to, do."
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"Only a press release that blamed the media was released, while none of the board members … had the guts to speak openly about the Quadriga debacle. Under these circumstances, no one should grieve if the organization doesn't survive this conflict over Putin. A 'Werkstatt Deutschland' needs a face, ideally a number of interesting faces who don't hide themselves. Berlin doesn't need every prize -- and certainly not one so dilettantish and politically insensitive."
"Talks between the German and Russian governments begin in Hanover today. There, the topics will be economic ties, international conflicts and human rights. Even if Putin isn't there, Merkel still has some explaining to do."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Putin is not getting the Quadriga award. Of course, it's extremely embarrassing to first say 'Giddy up!' and then say 'Whoa, Nelly!' But it would have been a whole lot more embarrassing if Putin had received the little piece of gilded plastic on Oct. 3."
"All of those who are talking about scandal and offense should give a little thought to how insulting it would have been for Vaclav Havel or Mikhail Gorbachev to find themselves sharing the same honor with Putin. Despite all his missteps and mistakes, and even if he did so somewhat unwittingly, Gorbachev still opened the doors to Russia's democratization. Putin slammed these doors shut again, reverting to the political culture inherited from the Soviet Union and a feigned democracy. How deaf does one have to be to ignore this and to award this man a prize for democracy?"