Over 3,000 people protested Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Amsterdam on Monday, with rainbow flags flying at half-mast around the city that prides itself on enjoying every kind of freedom.
The brightly dressed crowd chanted “Go home Putin!” during a festive protest opposite the museum where Putin had dinner with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, at the end of his visit to the nation that first legalised gay marriage in 2001.
Protesters were mainly targeting a bill before the Russian parliament that bans homosexual “propaganda” among minors, but also a general rights clampdown in Russia, where Putin is serving his third term as president.
Activists and Western governments have condemned the measure, which provides for fines of up to 500,000 rubles (12,500 euros, $15,830) for any “public act” promoting homosexuality or paedophilia.
“There are no violations of the rights of sexual minorities in Russia,” a defiant Putin said alongside Rutte before heading in to dinner. “These people enjoy full rights and liberties just like everyone else.”
Putin said that gay couples could not produce children and that “Europe and Russia have demographic problems.”
“We need to reach a consensus with this community, we need to agree to work collectively. Don’t insult each other, agree with, understand, each other and develop certain civilised rules,” he said. “I think this is possible.”
Rutte said he had raised concerns over NGO and gay rights with Putin.
“We had a good talk about it,” Rutte said, which testifies “to the good relations between our two countries.”
Dozens of police were deployed in the tightly secured area, including anti-riot forces, although an AFP correspondent saw some police dancing to the thumping music.
“Critical journalists not allowed. Do not frighten President Putin. Keep this area human rights free,” read one huge Amnesty International banner hanging from a window.
“No gay propaganda beyond this line,” another sign read.
Dutch police said they had briefly detained one person, a gay Dutch artist who wrote expletives against Putin on the window of his Amsterdam studio.
Barges sailed on the Amstel river with signs reading “Punk bands strictly prohibited”, in reference to members of the band Pussy Riot who were jailed last year for staging an anti-Putin concert in Russia.
Rainbow flags dotted the city, including outside Amsterdam City Hall. Many of the flags were flown at half-mast.
Putin’s visit is centred on trade talks with The Netherlands, and many Russian business leaders are travelling with him.
Russia has invested heavily in the Port of Rotterdam, a transit point for much of its oil and gas.
Many Russian companies are also registered in The Netherlands because of its favourable taxation regime.
Environmental group Greenpeace criticised an active cooperation agreement for Arctic exploration signed during the visit between Anglo-Dutch oil company Shell and Russian giant Gazprom’s oil subsidiary.
“It would seem that Shell has not learnt from the litany of errors that plagued its attempts to drill in Alaska and that its relentless search for oil and gas continues,” said Greenpeace Netherlands Arctic Campaigner Faiza Oulahsen.
“This deal is bad news for investors and bad news for the fragile Arctic environment and the indigenous peoples whose way of life depends on it,” she said.
Putin attended the opening of an exhibition at Amsterdam’s Hermitage Museum with Dutch Queen Beatrix about Peter the Great, who came to The Netherlands as he tried to modernise Russia more than 300 years ago.
Russian authorities have launched a crackdown on foreign NGOs operating in Russia, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and German think-tanks.
Putin arrived from Germany, where he was met with topless protesters. In Amsterdam, the Russian leader, who is himself not averse to being photographed topless, said: “Thankfully the homosexuals didn’t undress here.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Sunday urged Putin to “give a chance” to non-governmental organisations which she described as a “motor of innovation”.
The head of COC, the world’s oldest gay rights group, told AFP that they were protesting particularly because of the law’s vagueness.
“If I walk down the street holding my wife’s hand that can be construed as propaganda, flying a rainbow flag can be considered propaganda, and that’s all punishable,” Tanja Ineke said.