The Russia–Netherlands Year of Friendship: 400 years of friendship down the drain?

By Claire McNear, on 4 February 2014

By Anouk Van Den Akker

2014 marks the conclusion of the official Russia–Netherlands year of friendship, a year in which the 400-year-long relationship between the nations was to be celebrated. Although the nations differ considerably in many facets of society, both parties started the yearlong event with optimism. As it has now come to an end, however, it is questionable how much of the friendship remains intact. Instead of being a year in which the relationship between the two states was strengthened, many challenges emerged that cooled the friendship considerably. In the words of The Guardian, the 2013 Russia¬–Netherlands friendship year is “a strong contender for the least successful diplomatic initiative in recent European history.”

The first strain on the Dutch–Russian relationship arrived scarcely two weeks into the ceremonial year. On 17 January 2013, the Russian asylum seeker Aleksandr Dolmatov, who was being held in a Dutch detention center after being denied asylum that he had sought in the wake of participation in protests in Moscow, committed suicide. Controversy erupted as protests were held in front of the Dutch embassies in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, and Kiev, and the Dutch authorities were heavily criticized. It soon became clear that the Dutch authorities had made gross mistakes surrounding Dolmatov’s imprisonment.

In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law making it illegal to promote “non-traditional sexual relationships.” The Dutch minister of foreign affairs openly expressed his concern about the passing of the law, widely viewed as an anti-gay measure. In response, the Russian minister of foreign affairs warned him that states ought not to tell other states how to govern their own country.

Further challenges arose in April, when Putin made an official visit to Amsterdam. Thousands of angry protesters were awaiting him to express their concern about the human rights situation in Russia, particularly with regard to homosexual individuals. The mayor of Amsterdam subtly joined in the protest by sending a deputy mayor to meet the Russian president instead and by raising a rainbow LBGT flag outside City Hall. Deeply offended, Putin retaliated by airing “a non-stop campaign on Russian TV showing Holland to be a modern Sodom and Gomorrah, run by paedophiles and hashish dealers.”

In July, Russia announced a boycott of the import of Dutch potatoes, on the basis that they contained harmful materials. This followed Russia’s January ban of the import of Dutch veal under similar arguments, which was shortly followed by another ban on Dutch dairy products.

Following the boycott, four Dutch documentary-makers working in Saint Petersburg and the northwestern port city Murmansk were arrested under the February law and charged with promoting homosexual propaganda, although all were eventually released due to procedural mistakes made by Russian officials.

The arrest of the captain and crew of Greenpeace’s Dutch-flagged Arctic Sunrise by the Russian coast guard in September caused a wave of international criticism. As the crew members, hailing predominantly from Europe with two Dutch citizens among them, were charged with piracy, which in Russia carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in jail, the Dutch minister of foreign affairs urged Russian authorities to let them go and later asked the international maritime tribunal to order their release. Irritated by the pressure from the Netherlands, the Russian minister of foreign affairs subsequently blamed the Netherlands for the activists’ predicament.

In October, Russian diplomat Dmitri Borodin was arrested in The Hague for alleged abuse of his children. With his arrest, his diplomatic immunity was ignored, causing widespread outrage among Russian citizens. A protest broke out outside the Dutch embassy in Moscow and Putin immediately demanded an official apology from the Netherlands which, in turn, the Dutch minister of foreign affairs gave him.

Just days after Borodin was arrested, Dutch diplomat Onno Elderenbosch was assaulted by two men in his home in Moscow. The foreign minister of Russia called it a serious crime, yet no evidence has yet emerged about the perpetrators.

Overall, the many incidents of the Russia–Netherlands friendship year have left many in doubt that the two nations can convincingly be called friends. As diplomatic tension between the Netherlands and Russia has reached an all-time high, it seems that the year of friendship was more successful in breaking ties than in celebrating or strengthening them.