Private German award for Russia's Putin called off

A private German foundation has canceled an award ceremony amid heavy criticism over its choice to honor Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The Quadriga foundation had intended to honor Putin for his leadership in forging closer relations with Germany, but the organization said Saturday it was "concerned by the massive criticism" from media and politicians.

It is calling off this year's award ceremony all together — traditionally held on the anniversary of German reunification in October — because of the "increasingly unbearable pressure."

Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Mexican Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa were also set to be honored for their political leadership, but Putin's nomination came under heavy fire from critics who questioned the Russian leader's democratic credentials.

Former Czech President Vaclav Havel — a 2009 Quadriga laureate — said he would return his award if Putin is honored. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson already handed in his award Friday, German news agency dapd reported.

Germany's government abstained from the debate that followed Putin's nomination, saying it was the decision of an independent private foundation.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and several of their ministers are meeting Monday and Tuesday in Hannover, Germany, to enhance bilateral relations.

The prize is named Quadriga after the sculpture of a chariot drawn by four horses on the top of Berlin's landmark Brandenburg Gate.

Former laureates include Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Luxemburg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, Israeli President Shimon Peres and former Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Last year the foundation honored Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou for his courage in confronting his nation's debt problems.