BERLIN -- Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday publicly expressed her government's disapproval of the way nongovernmental organizations are treated by the Kremlin, and she did so in the presence of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, making her the first Western leader known to have told him so directly.
Germany has become more willing to publicly criticize the Russian leadership lately, and Ms. Merkel, who was raised in East Germany, left no room for interpretation regarding Berlin's position on the police searches that the Russians have conducted in recent weeks at the offices of nongovernmental organizations. The targets of the searches included two of Germany's most-respected political foundations; in each case the Russian authorities confiscated documents and equipment.
"Of course it is a disruption and an intrusion when, for example, hard drives are subject to control -- although the work of these foundations is in keeping with the law, as far as we know," Ms. Merkel said, standing beside Mr. Putin at a news conference after the two leaders toured the Hanover trade fair.
"I made it clear that a vibrant civil society can only exist when the individual organizations can work without fear or concern," she said.
The chancellor's remarks reflected mounting frustration in Germany with what is seen as Russia's crackdown on free expression. A group of female protesters tried to make the point to Mr. Putin a different way, flashing bare breasts and shouting that the Russian leader was a "dictator." Bodyguards quickly swooped in, covered the women and dragged them off to the main police station in Hanover for questioning.
The Hanover police said it was not clear whether the protesters -- two Germans, two Ukrainians and a Russian -- were linked to Femen, a Ukrainian advocacy group known for topless demonstrations against the exploitation of women.
Mr. Putin, who smiled wryly as the women rushed at him, their chests and backs painted with slurs in English and Russian, later told reporters that he had "enjoyed" the protest and that the organizers of the fair should be grateful to the women, "because without such actions, one would speak less about the trade fair."
Ms. Merkel found herself in the awkward position of defending the right of protesters to voice divergent opinions, though she stressed the importance of dissenting through orderly legal channels. "Whether in Germany one needs to take to such emergency measures and not express their opinion in another way, I have my doubts," she said.
Mr. Putin traveled to the Netherlands later in the day. In Amsterdam, activists threatened mass protests, hoping to overshadow Mr. Putin's attempts to focus on the growing importance of trade with the Netherlands, which was one of Russia's biggest trading partners in 2012, with $83 billion in goods exchanged between the countries.
Gay rights activists were flying rainbow flags in the city before Mr. Putin arrived, and organizers said they planned a major protest against a bill pending in the Russian Parliament that would make public events and dissemination of information about the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community to minors punishable by fines of up to $16,000. The Netherlands legalized same-sex marriage in 2001. German politicians also criticized the bill.
Stefan Meister, a Russia expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations, said that although German officials were generally more critical of Russia, they had yet to change the way the country conducts its dealings with Russia. Though trade ties remain strong, the discussions on Monday reflected a clear agreement to disagree on Cyprus, Syria, the nongovernmental organizations and other matters. Mr. Meister said that indicated a need for a new approach.
"The German government's policies have failed," he said. "I see a change in the rhetoric, but not in the policies of the Germans."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.