2013 was supposed to be a year of celebration in Dutch-Russian relations, marking cultural and trade ties that go back centuries. It is turning out to make a low in the bilateral relationship instead.
The festivities, which started April 8 when Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Amsterdam, were overshadowed from the start by Dutch concerns about human rights abuses in Russia, especially the maltreatment of gays. A law banning gay “propaganda” had been taken up by the Russian parliament at the time. Putin signed it into law on June 30. The mayor of Amsterdam refused to meet Putin on his visit in protest.
The Netherlands was the first country to legalize gay marriage in 2001. Its liberal prime minister, Mark Rutte, condemned the then-pending Russian legislation during a news conference with his counterpart, insisting, “Gay rights are human rights.” But he also hailed the strong Dutch-Russian relationship which, he said, allowed for “such difficult topics” to be discussed frankly.
Rutte was wary of antagonizing the Russians. On the eve of Putin’s visit, his economy minister announced that the Dutch-Russian joint venture Shtandart had agreed to invest some €800 million in the construction of an oil terminal in the port of Rotterdam. 30 percent of crude oil and 45 percent of oil products shipped through Rotterdam’s harbor originates in Russia. The Anglo-Dutch energy company Shell also operates several oil and gas fields in Russia. Indeed, also coinciding with Putin’s Amsterdam tip, Russia’s Gazprom and Shell announced that they would jointly develop offshore Arctic oil reserves. The Netherlands has a clear economic interest in maintaining amicable ties with Russia.
Yet just two weeks after Putin was met by pro-gay demonstrators in the Dutch capital, a court in The Hague sentenced a former Foreign Ministry worker to twelve years imprisonment for spying for the Russians.
The bureaucrat, whose name turned up in a German espionage case as well as an American investigation into dozens of Russian agents, had been accused of passing hundreds of sensitive political and military documents to Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, including information about the European Union Monitoring Mission in Georgia, peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan and Kosovo and NATO’s military intervention in Libya’s civil war in 2011 — which Russia sharply criticized.
Things took a turn for the worse last month when Russia detained thirty Greenpeace activists, two of them Dutch, in Murmansk who had been protesting drilling in the North Pole region from the ship Arctic Sunrise. Russia initially accused them of piracy, an offensive that carries a maximum prison sentence of fifteen years. It later dropped those charges, but still intends to prosecute them for hooliganism which could get them up to seven years in jail.
Russia rejected an appeal from the Netherlands, where the environmentalists’ ship is registered, to have the matter resolved by a tribunal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, pointing out that the arrests were made in its territorial rather than international waters.
In a radio interview, the Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans alleged that Russia’s polar ambitions played a part in what he had earlier described as the “unlawful” detention of the Greenpeace ship. “Development of the Arctic is incredibly important for Russia’s economic development and its position as an energy giant,” he said. “It needs foreign investors for that. [Putin] is afraid that these kind of actions will deter foreign investors.”
To make matters worse, earlier this month Dutch police apprehended a Russian diplomat in The Hague on suspicions of child abuse. Putin immediately demanded an apology, accusing the Netherlands of a “gross breach” of diplomat protocol. “We are waiting for explanations and apologies and also for those guilty to be punished.”
Timmermans apologized a day later for violating the Russian diplomat’s immunity but not before both Dutch and Russian media had reported furiously on the matter with the latter — falsely — claiming that Dutch police had barged into the man’s home “in camouflage” and “severely” beaten him in front of his children. In the Netherlands, commentators and opposition politicians started wondering whether King Willem-Alexander should still visit Russia in November when he is due to officially end the Netherlands-Russian Year.
Their doubts were amplified the following week when unidentified men broke into a Dutch diplomat’s Moscow apartment, tied him up and allegedly painted a heart with lipstick on a mirror with the words “LGBT” (an initialism that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) underneath it. The Dutch envoy was relatively unharmed and the Russian government launched an investigation.
The Dutch prime minister urged both sides to keep a “cool head” at a press conference several days later and insisted that the “isolated” incidents should be dealt with “step by step.” But he said no charges would be brought against the officers who had wrongly detained the Russian diplomat in The Hague despite Putin’s demand that they be “punished.”
The incidents are more than an embarrassment for Rutte who has so far argued that foreign policy should be pursued primarily in the Dutch economic interest. Public opinion is turning decidedly against Russia. The country’s media’s flagrant — and to the average Dutchmen, who is highly unlikely to have ever experienced police abuse, almost hilarious — exaggerations of their Hague diplomat’s treatment do little to improve Russia’s image, which the Netherlands-Russia Year was supposed to do. Now pressure is mounting on the prime minister to take a stand.
The Netherlands is currently the second largest natural gas producer in Europe, after Norway. Estimates are that it will have to import in as little as ten years’ time. If it is to remain a pivotal gas distributor in Europe — which is the government’s stated policy — it can ill-afford to alienate the Russians who are the world’s largest exporters of natural gas. But neither can it well afford to be perceived at home as being rolled over by them.