Dutch foreign minister quits after lying about Putin meeting

Incident has embarrassed Mark Rutte’s government and further strained ties with Russia

Dutch foreign minister Halbe Zijlstra hugs prime minister Mark Rutte after announcing his resignation in the Dutch parliament on Tuesday. Photograph: Martijn Beekman/AFP/Getty Images

Dutch foreign minister Halbe Zijlstra hugs prime minister Mark Rutte after announcing his resignation in the Dutch parliament on Tuesday. Photograph: Martijn Beekman/AFP/Getty Images

 

Dutch foreign minister Halbe Zijlstra quit on Tuesday after admitting that he had lied about attending a meeting in 2006 at which he said Russian president Vladimir Putin had outlined a strategy for building a greater Russia.

The incident has embarrassed prime minister Mark Rutte’s coalition government, which has a parliamentary majority of just one, and further strained difficult ties with Russia.

It risks undermining Dutch foreign policy at a time when diplomatic ties between the Netherlands and Russia have hit a low point.

Mr Zijlstra, visibly emotional as he took the floor during a parliamentary debate convened to discuss his behaviour, said he had decided to tender his resignation to the king because the situation risked harming the work of the foreign ministry.

“We live in a country where the truth matters. That’s why I see no other option than to resign,” said Mr Zijlstra, who had held the job for less than four months. “The office [of foreign minister] must be above all doubt, both at home and abroad.”

Junior foreign minister Sigrid Kaag, who led a United Nations mission to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons in 2013-2014, was to assume Mr Zijlstra’s responsibilities until a permanent replacement was found, news agency ANP said.

Members of parliament grilled Mr Rutte, who had previously defended Mr Zijlstra despite having known since late January that he had not met Mr Putin, asking repeatedly why he had failed to inform parliament during the three weeks before the affair went public.

“This was not released in a moment of transparency, but under the pressure of a journalist,” said Lodewijk Asscher, head of the opposition Labour Party.

The handling of Mr Zijlstra’s case is the first serious test for Mr Rutte’s coalition since it took office in October.

Second hand

Mr Zijlstra admitted on Monday that he had lied in 2016 when he said he had attended a meeting a decade earlier at which Mr Putin reportedly spoke of plans for regional expansion.

He said he did not in fact attend the meeting but had heard second hand about the Russian president’s remarks – comments that led opposition parties to demand his resignation and that the Russian embassy dismissed on Tuesday as “fake news”.

The embassy said in a statement that Mr Zijlstra’s allegations “do not hold up against any criticism and are only intended to spread false perceptions of Russia’s intentions”.

“Russia is being blamed for disseminating disinformation,” the embassy added. “Dutch officials are constantly making such unfounded statements... Isn’t this an example of fake news directed against our country?”

Mr Zijlstra had been due to travel to Moscow for a previously scheduled meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday. That meeting was cancelled, the Russian foreign ministry said.

The dispute comes at an awkward time for the Dutch, who are preparing indictments against suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in July 2014 with 196 Dutch citizens on board.

Dutch authorities have said the plane, flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile, fired from territory held by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Russia has denied this. – Reuters