Royal seal of approval for Putin’s Olympics as Dutch overcome doubts
High-profile delegation from Netherlands signals pragmatic approach
The crew of the Amsterdam-registered Greenpeace Arctic Sunrise were released in December 2013, at about the same time as Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina – a “sequence of events has left much of the Dutch public scratching their heads”. Photograph: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images
To go or not to go? This is the question about the Winter Olympics in Sochi that heads of state around the world have been grappling with. Funnily enough, in the Netherlands, whose diplomatic relations with Russia hit an all-time low during 2013, it’s all sorted – everyone is going along.
The delegation is being led by King Willem-Alexander and his wife, Queen Maxima, who paid a state visit to Russia less than four months ago despite high-profile protests at home and in Moscow over Russia’s overt mistreatment of its LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte is going as well, against the express advice, it’s worth noting, of Diederik Samsom, leader of his minority coalition partners, Labour, and in the face of some scathing criticism from the opposition and, once again, from gay rights groups.
The minister for sport, Edith Schippers, will be there to cheer on the Dutch team, which, at 41 athletes excluding reserves, will be the largest and most expensive ever sent to a Winter Olympics. And it has some real contenders in distance and speed skating, snowboarding, and bobsleigh.
Of course, every country likes to see its athletes do well on the international stage, and the Dutch can be as nationalistic and boisterous as anyone else when it comes to supporting the home side.
And yet when it comes to politics, the Dutch also have a healthy sceptical streak.
Much to the surprise of the powerbrokers in The Hague, that streak has begun to manifest itself in the past few weeks in an often angry public debate about why exactly it is that . . . everyone is going to Sochi.
Hang on a minute, they’re saying, why is it that the United States, Germany, France, Belgium and Britain, to name but a few, have decided to send neither their heads of state nor their prime ministers to Sochi?
If it is in any way to do with Russia’s human rights record or its record of anti-gay discrimination – and not every country has admitted that it is – how can it be that the great and the good of the Netherlands, an outspoken champion of both, have suddenly forgotten not just their principles but those core strands of Dutch foreign policy?
It’s not as though the Dutch public haven’t been watching the TV news or reading the newspapers over the past year.
There have been several serious stand-offs between the Russians and the Dutch. First, a senior Russian diplomat was handcuffed by police in his Hague apartment after a neighbour complained that he’d allegedly mistreated his child – an arrest which the Dutch were later forced to admit had violated his diplomatic immunity.
Then a 60-year-old Dutch diplomat was beaten by masked men in his Moscow apartment and the letters “LGBT” daubed in lipstick on a mirror – an attack for which nobody, despite the iron fist of the Russian police and security services, has been arrested.
And of course, there’s the story that captured the world’s headlines for months: the seizure of the Amsterdam- registered Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise and arrest of its crew of 30, after they staged an anti-prospecting protest at a Gazprom oil rig in the Arctic last October.
First, the “Greenpeace 30” were charged with piracy, then the charges were reduced to hooliganism, and finally the campaigners were released in the last days of 2013, at about the same time as the release of Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina – a “coincidence” widely regarded as a decision by Putin to clear the decks of controversy in advance of Sochi.
Thinking back over that sequence of events has left much of the Dutch public scratching their heads.
How can it possibly be, they’ve puzzled, that having been publicly embarrassed, dismissed, and treated so high- handedly on so many occasions by the Russians, their king and queen, prime minister, sports minister and assorted other senior figures are jostling to get on the flight to Sochi?
Then Rutte answered their question.
He denied that there was any connection at all between the release of the Greenpeace activists and the fact that he plus the royal couple were bucking the trend among their peers in the West and joining the Putin guest list.
He also denied reports in two newspapers that just such a deal had in fact been done.
So, Dutch pragmatism wins out. The public may not have asked exactly the right question, but at least they got their answer.
Now it’s back to cheering the Orange Army.