Min­is­ter steps down for ly­ing

Bangkok Post - - WORLD -

THE HAGUE: Dutch For­eign Min­is­ter Halbe Zi­jl­stra re­signed on Tues­day af­ter ad­mit­ting ly­ing, trig­ger­ing a po­lit­i­cal bomb­shell and a vote of no-con­fi­dence in the coun­try’s prime min­is­ter.

Prime Min­is­ter Mark Rutte over­whelm­ingly sur­vived the vote brought by his arch-foe far-right politi­cian Geert Wilders, with 101 MPs against and only 43 in favour.

But the scan­dal has erupted in just a few days in the Nether­lands, and threat­ens to un­der­mine Mr Rutte’s fledg­ling and frag­ile four-party coali­tion.

The drama came af­ter Mr Zi­jl­stra ad­mit­ted he had falsely claimed to have at­tended a 2006 meet­ing with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin.

“This is by far the big­gest mis­take I have made in my ca­reer,” he told the lower house of par­lia­ment, adding tear­fully that he had no op­tion but to re­sign.

Mr Rutte then found him­self in the fir­ing line, when MPs grilled him about why he had not in­formed par­lia­ment sooner af­ter be­ing told about Mr Zi­jl­stra’s de­cep­tion on Jan 29.

“It was an er­ror of judge­ment on my part,” Mr Rutte said.

“I didn’t think this af­fair would have such a po­lit­i­cal fall­out. I un­der­es­ti­mated the im­pact of this lie.”

Mr Zi­jl­stra, a mem­ber of Mr Rutte’s Lib­eral VVD party, had only been in the post for four months, and his ap­point­ment in Oc­to­ber had al­ready raised eye­brows due his lack of ex­pe­ri­ence.

His res­ig­na­tion came just hours be­fore he was set to leave for Moscow to meet with Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov.

They had been due to dis­cuss among other things the 2014 down­ing of Malaysian Air­lines flight MH17 shot down by a mis­sile fired from ter­ri­tory held by pro-Rus­sian rebels in east­ern Ukraine.

The tragedy in which all 298 peo­ple on board died, most of them Dutch, has soured ties and led to ac­cu­sa­tions that Moscow is not be­ing truth­ful about the events.

A Dutch for­eign min­istry of­fi­cial said that the Moscow “meet­ing will not go ahead, for ob­vi­ous rea­sons” and they would try to look “at a later date”.

Step­ping down, Mr Zi­jl­stra told MPs on Tues­day that the cred­i­bil­ity of the coun­try’s for­eign min­is­ter must be “be­yond doubt, both in­side and out­side of the coun­try”.

He re­signed af­ter fi­nally ad­mit­ting that his long-held claim to have at­tended a 2006 meet­ing in Mr Putin’s dacha, which in­cluded Jeroen van der Veer, Shell’s for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive, was false.

“I have spo­ken about an in­ci­dent of great im­por­tance, say­ing I was there in per­son, while that was not the case,” Mr Zi­jl­stra told MPs on Tues­day.

“I wanted to tell this story con­vinc­ingly with­out re­veal­ing my source, it was ob­vi­ously the wrong choice. I should not have done it. I am sorry.”

A for­mer Shell con­trac­tor, Mr Zi­jl­stra told a VVD party congress in 2016 that dur­ing the meet­ing Mr Putin al­legedly spoke about his def­i­ni­tion of a “Greater Rus­sia”.

Mr Putin “wants to go back to a ‘Greater Rus­sia’ and his an­swer was that it in­cluded Rus­sia, Be­larus, Ukraine and the Baltic States,” Mr Zi­jl­stra had claimed.

The Rus­sian em­bassy an­grily waded into the scan­dal on Tues­day, ac­cus­ing the Dutch of spread­ing “fake news”.

“In the Nether­lands, Rus­sia is be­ing blamed for dis­sem­i­nat­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion. Dutch of­fi­cials are con­stantly mak­ing such un­founded state­ments,” it said in a state­ment.

Try­ing to at­tribute to Rus­sia “great­power am­bi­tions and the de­sire to recre­ate ‘the Soviet Em­pire’ do not hold up,” the em­bassy added.

It was not im­me­di­ately clear who would re­place Mr Zi­jl­stra as the coun­try’s top diplo­mat, although the Dutch ANP news agency said Trade and De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter Si­grid Kaag would take over some of his du­ties tem­po­rar­ily.

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