By Andreas Rinke
ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - Chancellor Angela Merkel's trip to Russia on Friday to meet Vladimir Putin was overshadowed by a spat about a museum event, apparently canceled by Russia, where she was due to refer to German art seized by the Soviets in the wake of World War Two.
"Uproar about looted art", "Putin is a miserable diplomat", "Looted art scandal overshadows Russia trip", wrote Germany's incensed media, calling it a sign of deteriorating relations between the two countries.
Merkel flew to Russia to address an economic forum in St Petersburg hosted by Putin and was going to join him opening an exhibition entitled "The Bronze Age of Europe: Europe Without Borders" at the Hermitage museum in the evening.
But German government spokesman Georg Streiter said Russia had called off the event arguing that "it was impossible for the host to find the time".
Asked what Merkel had planned to say when she inaugurated the show, Streiter said: "She would perhaps have once more referred to the German position on the issue of 'looted art'."
According to Berlin's Humboldt University, the Soviets plundered more than a million books and thousands of pieces of "Beutekunst," or "looted art", at the end of the World War Two. Many pieces have still not been traced down.
The exhibition is expected to include "trophy art" items carried off by the Soviet Union as war reparations that Germany would now like back.
"The opening of the exhibition .. would have been a lovely occasion to highlight our close cultural cooperation," said Streiter. The exhibition opens to the public on Saturday, the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Soviet Union.
Tension between Berlin and Moscow was apparent when Putin visited the Hanover trade fair in April.
Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, criticized his crackdown on foreign non-governmental organizations, saying: "A lively civil society can only emerge when individuals can operate without fear or worry, of course on the basis of law."
Her foreign minister, the openly gay Guido Westerwelle, has also protested about a new law against homosexual "propaganda".
But Germany has to keep up good ties with Russia because of its dependency on Russia natural gas. Merkel says maintaining a dialogue is the best way to improve civil rights in Russia.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Brown in Berlin and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Stephen Brown)