What do a 400th anniversary, gay rights, Greenpeace, beat up diplomats, a ban on tulips and a King’s visit have in common?

Prime Minister Mark Rutte and President Vladimir Putin in better spirits. Photo by: Russavia, Wikimedia commons– They are all part of the diplomatic turmoil between Russia and the Netherlands . If nations conducted their foreign diplomacy in a restaurant then Russian and Dutch diplomats would be flinging borsch and cheese  at each other. As of late, the Dutch-Russian relationship has come under strain due to a sequence of rapidly unfolding events.

Back in September noone would have guessed that Greenpeace’s demonstration at a Gazprom drilling platform in the Pechora Sea would spark major upheaval between the two countries. Quite unfortunate, as this evening Russian President Putin will receive the Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Maxima as part of festivities marking the 400th anniversary of the established ”friendly” relations between the two countries.

The earliest relations between the countries date back to the end of the 16th century and centred mainly on trade. In 1697 the Tsar Peter the Great lived and worked as a carpenter in Amsterdam partly in order to learn more about the Dutch methods of ship-building. Once back in Russia, Peter the Great applied his experiences in his governance. As a result, Russia’s economy grew and both nations held each other in favourable light for years to come.

The year 2013 was chosen to celebrate the shared history and long-lasting understanding, however it made a rough start back in April with thousands of Dutch people protesting in favour of gay-rights during Putin’s visit to Amsterdam. Putin hit back quick and hard by saying he does not understand how it is possible that there is a legal organisation for paedophiles in the Netherlands and a fundamentalist Christian political party that denies women’s involvement in politics.

Several incidents followed: relations took a severe hit after the arrest of 30 crew members belonging to the ”Arctic Sunrise”, a vessel of Greenpeace that flies the Dutch flag for piracy. Whenever a ship sales with a particularly nation flag, it may not be inspected without permission of the respective flag state. For this reason, the Netherlands claim that the arrest violates the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea and therefore initiated proceedings against Russia. In addition, they asked the tribunal to prompt Russia to free the crew. Russia claimed it had found drugs on the ship and let it known it would not participate in the proceedings. As of now the crewmembers are scheduled to be brought to a pre-trial detention centre in Russia’s Murmansk to St. Petersburg.

Trade between Russia and the Netherlands amount to more than 23 billion Euros. Photo by: Russavia, Wikimedia commons

This incident on its own would have been catastrophic enough, however, after the arrest other notable incidents occurred making the tense situation even more arduous. On the 6th of October the Dutch police arrested the Russian diplomat ”Dmitri Borodin” at his home, due to neighbours’ complaints about drunkenness and  abuse of his children. Borodin stated however that these allegations were untrue leading Putin to demand an apology. The Dutch Foreign minister, Frans Timmermans, apologised because of the violation of the Vienna Convention which states that all diplomats should be guaranteed safety in their host countries.  However, he additionally underlined that the police had acted accordingly to the distress call. 10 Days after the incident a Dutch diplomat in Moscow was beaten up at his home by two unidentified assailants. They tied him up and drew a heart with pink lipstick with cupid’s arrow through it and wrote underneath the acronym ”LGBT” (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender). Russia promised a full investigation and condemned the attack.

These attacks are best seen as tit for tat, with the disagreement spilling over into other areas outside the diplomatic arena. The best example would be the dissatisfaction expressed by the Russian Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary surveillance towards the quality of Dutch tulips. Currently these important Dutch export products are under close scrutiny with Russia considering a ban on the imports. In an attempt to show good will the Dutch horticultural sector sent half a million bulbs of various flowers to Russia.

Despite Russian manoeuvring on tulips, it would seem that the long-time core interest of Russo-Dutch relations: trade, remains largely  unaffected by the recent squabbles.  This is for good reason as trade between the two amounts to more than 23 billion Euros annually, plus the port of Rotterdam serves as a hub for Russian oil and gas exports. This evening, Putin will receive his royal guests as part of the anniversary festivities, which could mean the end of the diplomatic standoff.  This could depend upon the course of the dinner conversation and whether both sides can navigate through its choppy waters, and of course also upon the Dutch King not encountering any suspicious ingredients in his Russian soup!


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