The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 marks the moment for the Dutch to finally stop ‘cuddling’ Russia and man up, Bas Heijne writes.
The Netherlands is a small country, so the horrific deaths of 193 of its citizens when Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down in Ukrainian airspace on Thursday will have an impact on Dutch society that will last for years, if not decades. So many Dutch people have ties to the victims or their relations. Quite a few people I know have lost a dear friend or colleague — among the victims that I moved in the same circles with in Amsterdam were Pim de Kuijer, the energetic parliamentary lobbyist and AIDS campaigner, and Karlijn Keijzer and Laurens van der Graaff, a young couple starting off on their holidays (Laurens was once editor of an irreverent student magazine that has become a kind of national treasure). Over the last two days, Dutch Twitter and Facebook accounts have filled up with outcries of unbelief and naked grief and heartbreaking testimonies of loss, friendship and love. This is truly a national tragedy.
Yet the official government reaction to this act of terror initially seemed overtly cautious or even strangely muted. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte refused to be drawn into speculation about the perpetrators and spoke only of a great “disaster,” stressing that before he could say anything about it, the facts should all be known first—a fairly typical response. Rutte is not a man to use grand words; in one of his defining speeches he prided himself on his lack of vision, which he seemed to confuse with ideology. In his brand of liberalism, Dutch citizens are on their own; the state should neither pamper nor unite them. Only when critics in the media judged his timid, legalistic reaction to the air disaster to be spineless did he speak up. At a later press conference, perhaps overreacting to his widespread image of an ever-smiling, ever-flexible politician suffering from a vital lack of gravitas, Rutte made a grandiose promise to find the perpetrators and bring them to justice. On Saturday, after having seen the images of Ukrainian separatists occupying the crash site and refusing to permit access to the bodies— behaving in a way he called “completely disrespectful”—Rutte finally showed real anger and frustration. He had had, he said, “an intense conversation” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. If it was not too little, it still seemed rather late.
Yes, the Netherlands is a small country, but we have powerful friends, and we are part of the strongest alliance in history. The truth is that for too long the Dutch government has coddled the dictator in Moscow, looking past Putin’s blatant offenses against human decency. The Russian president, in his letter of condolence to Rutte over the air disaster, agreed to the Dutch demand for an independent inquiry. But if the Dutch government’s past behavior toward Putin is any guide, there will be little follow-up.
To many Dutch, any promise by Putin sounds ominous. The last time the Russian government promised a thorough inquiry was last October, when an elderly Dutch diplomat, Onno Elderenbosch, was surprised and manhandled by a gang of thugs in his private Moscow apartment, an incident that followed suspiciously close on the arrest of a drunken Russian diplomat in The Hague after neighbors complained that he dragged his crying children by their hair through his garden, which caused an vindictive anti-Dutch campaign among Russian nationalists. Nothing was ever heard about the inquiry. So far no one has been arrested.
This incident was one of many during a year that was meant to be festive. The Netherlands struggled through 2013 officially celebrating 400 years of “friendship” with Russia. Though there were many smiles and toasts on both sides, the year proved to be a disaster. At the start of the festivities the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs confessed itself very much in love with the idea of “cultural diplomacy”—the belief that you can promote trade relationships as well as human rights by exchanging artists and exhibitions with another country. This may work in a staunchly democratic country like, say, Austria, where the government shares the accepted notion of promoting tolerance and diversity trough the arts, but with an illiberal democracy like Russia it is sure to backfire. In Putin’s Russia there is no “dialogue,” only propaganda.
In April 2013, on a visit to the Netherlands, Putin countered protests against his infamous anti-gay law by accusing the Dutch of tolerating a political party of pedophiles (which is nonsense). By creating an uproar about the arrest of the drunken diplomat and by arresting some Dutch Greenpeace activists for coming too close to a Russian oil platform, the Russians efficiently silenced virtually all Dutch protests against the deteriorating civil rights in Putin’s Russia, so the festivities seemed in the end to celebrate the current state of affairs. To put it bluntly, the Dutch let themselves be bullied into submission. Though there was a lot of talk among activists about mounting political and artistic protests during the final event of the “Friendship Year”—a dinner held by the new Dutch king and queen with Putin and a performance of the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Moscow—there was none. The only thing that could be heard as the sounds of the orchestra faded was a sigh of relief among the diplomats that it was finally over.
But apparently no lessons were learned. When Putin tried to legitimize his regime to the world with the Sochi Olympics, most Western governments shied away from being seen too much present at the megalomaniacal affair. Not so the Dutch, who sent a preposterously heavy delegation consisting of the king and queen, Prime Minister Rutte and Minister of Sports Edith Schippers. When Rutte was pressured by Dutch parliamentarians to bring up the issue of gay rights during his scheduled talk with Putin, the Russian president remarked that this was really not the time for such a discussion; it was all about sports now.
During the opening ceremony, the Dutch prime minister sat next to Aleksander Lukashenko, the autocratic president of Belarus. When the Dutch sports minister was asked by a journalist about the arrest and maltreatment of the punk band Pussy Riot in Sochi, she speculated that the group might have come only to seek publicity for their new album. After the Dutch team won their first of their many gold medals, they were visited by Putin in the Holland Heineken House, where the Russian president was photographed informally toasting with the Dutch king and queen. When Putin reclaimed Crimea by force shortly after, this picture was seen as nothing less than a publicity disaster in Holland.
King Willem Alexander is not known for his political acumen, but the oddly ingratiating attitude of Dutch government officials toward the Russians has raised eyebrows even in circles where realpolitik is held in high esteem. Apart from political naivete, the only possible explanation is a persistent fear of harming trade relations. Almost 4,000 Dutch companies do business in Russia, which puts the Netherlands in eighth place on the list of exporting countries. Holland imports mostly oil and gas from Russia, enough to put Russia in sixth place of countries from which the Dutch import.
So when the “Friendship Year” threatened to end in political scandal, Dutch companies like Unilever and Philips publicly demanded an end to any kind of activism. The Concertgebouw Orchestra, which before its visit to Russia had left open the possibility of protesting against the dismal state of human rights there, complied immediately. Shortly after, Bernard Wientjes, chairman of the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers, which represents “the common interests of Dutch business,” asked the government to do away with any moral preaching as part of foreign policy. In the past, Dutch foreign policy had always been two-faced, traditionally symbolized by the odd couple of the Dutch merchant and the Protestant preacher. From now on, Wientjes said, the merchant should rule alone. Taking the moral high ground, he added, was costing us a lot of money. In April of this year, when the crisis over Crimea was at its height, one of the top executives of Royal Dutch Shell, Ben van Beurden, made a point of visiting Putin and saying that no matter the political situation, Shell and Russia had great plans for the future.
As the tragedy of flight MH17 sinks in and the search for the guilty seems to lead indirectly or even directly to Putin’s Russia, it remains to be seen how much this will change the Dutch government’s seemingly compliant attitude toward Putin’s blatant disregard for Dutch sensibilities. One of the effects of globalization is surely that the Dutch have realized that they are of tiny importance on the world stage. Dutch hectoring about human rights all over the globe in the past is now seen by many in Holland mostly as a form of narrow-minded self righteousness. But perhaps it is not; after all, we are also part of the united front of the West, of NATO, and of the civilized world. When the issue is no longer the mistreatment of Russian gays and local human right activists but the loss of almost 200 Dutch lives in a conflict that has been cynically fueled by our friend of 400 years, this kind of self-abasing relativism, which has become the dominant strain in our relations with Russia, will be of no use whatsoever.