German group withdraws Putin 'role model' prize
Red-faced organisers of a prominent German political prize bowed to growing pressure Saturday and went back on a decision to give Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a major award.
The Werkstatt Deutschland organisation cited "massive criticism in the media and the political world" over plans to honour Putin with the Quadriga Award, recognising "role models for enlightenment, dedication and the public good."
The retraction came after a week of controversy following the decision to award Putin, Russia's former president and for many still the real political force in the country.
Outraged critics said any award to Putin would make a mockery of previous winners of the prize, who include several leading rights activists.
The Russian leader has been accused of presiding over serious human rights abuses during his time in power, particularly in relation to the conduct of the conflict in Chechnya.
Among the dissenters were several members of the Werkstatt executive committee, who walked out in disgust, but at least two former winners of the prize also objected.
Both the 2009 laureate, Czech playwright, former dissident and onetime president Vaclav Havel, and last year's winner Danish artist Olafur Eliasson spoke out against the decision.
Eliasson had sent back his prize -- a sculpture of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate -- and Havel was reportedly preparing to do the same.
"It pains us all that (Havel) apparently no longer sees fit to remain in the fold of recipients," said Werkstatt Deutschland in its statement Saturday.
The Quadriga panel said it had made its about-turn with "great regret", because of "growing pressure that was more and more unbearable" and the risk of the controversy escalating further.
The organisers also "apologised to everyone involved", as Havel welcomed the latest decision.
"Vaclav Havel thinks it was very wise of the panel to reconsider its choice," his secretary Sabina Tancevova told AFP.
The row came ahead of talks on Monday between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the northern city of Hanover.
But in Moscow, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov played down the affair, insisting it would not affect relations between the two countries.
"This has nothing to do with Russian-German ties," Peskov told AFP.
The Putin government would "treat with respect any decision by this organisation", he added.
Peskov told the Interfax news agency: "Vladimir Putin is the holder of many international awards, who does not need a further acknowledgement."
The panel of 20 leading politicians, journalists and businessmen had decided to honour Putin only after a heated debate, said Werkstatt.
When the panel did opt for Putin, it was in recognition of his work towards developing "new relations of confidence between Russia, Germany and the European Union", according to the original citation.
The prize has been awarded every year since 2003 on October 3, the anniversary of German unification.
© 2011 AFP