Russia and the Netherlands: A year of friendship or conflict?
Queen Beatrix and Vladimir Putin

At the beginning of 2013, nobody could anticipate that the changing relations between Russia and the Netherlands could become the headlines of international mass-media. However, due to a sudden turn of events, now that is exactly the case.

The historical background of the relations between Russia and the Netherlands

Russia established good relationships with several Western European countries under the reign of Tsar Peter I The Great (1672-1725). He was one of the most prominent Russian personalities, being responsible of the modernization of archaic Russia. Before Peter the Great, Russia was cut off from the sea lanes and he successfully created a strong navy and carried out wide scale reforms.  In order to achieve such results, he turned to the Western experience for inspiration. The Russian tsar initiated his first Great Embassy in 1697 and he took the pseudonym Pyotr Mikhailov introducing himself as a petty officer during his journey. It was a tour to various European countries, including the Netherlands. For a period of three months beginning from the 30th of August 1697, Peter I and ten other Russians were allowed to learn shipbuilding industry on the shipyard of the Dutch East India Company.  He also spent eight days in Zandaam in order to learn shipwright’s trade lodged in a little wooden house.

In 1699 a permanent Russian diplomatic mission was established in The Hague headed by Andrey Artamonovich Andreev as the extraordinary and plenipotentiary ambassador. During the governing of Peter I cultural and scientific relations between the two countries were developed. Many books were translated from Dutch to Russian helping to spread the knowledge about the latest achievements in Europe in the field of science and technology. A lot of Dutch words penetrated in Russian under Peter I, especially words connected with navy: mast – мачта – mast, bootsman – боцман – boatswain, waterlijn – ватерлиния - waterline, stuurwiel – штурвал - steering wheel, Schoener – шхуна – schooner.

For 400 years, Russia and the Netherlands continued to maintain a good relationship, transforming 2013 into the year of highlighting the long bilateral relations between the Netherlands and Russia.

2013: the year of Dutch and Russian friendship

In the context of the Netherlands-Russia year, the Netherlands is organizing a vast cultural and socio-economic program in Russia, mainly in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg.  At the All-Russia Exhibiton Centre (VVC) in Moscow "The Dutch village" was open from 4th till the 14th of October. Muscovites could get acquainted with the Netherlands and get in touch with Dutch products and businesses. The mobile Dutch village is a complex consisting of traditional houses, constructed from environmentally friendly materials and it usually travels around the world sharing Dutch culture and traditions. According to the official website of the international event informs everyone that the King of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander is planning on the 9th of November with his wife, Queen Maxima to attend the closing ceremony of the Netherlands Year Moscow in Russia.

Unexpectedly, at the end of September the supposedly harmonic Russia-Netherlands relations turned into a serious conflict. Ironically, the conflict is not closely related to the navy, yet it required the intervention of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea maritime. Dutch-flagged ship Arctic Sunrise was arrested by Russian coast guard on the 18th September.  At an offshore oil platform which belongs to Gazprom, Greenpeace activists staged a protest against the environmental risks that present intense energy exploitation in the Arctic region. Two Dutch citizens and 28 others Greenpeace activists have been charged with piracy which could mean fifteen years in prison. Russian human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin commented this case on a television program that aired to the Far East:

"I think it would be good if they were fined properly for their exotic behavior. The most active of them should probably be banned from entering our country for some time. It would be very normal".

Greenpeace posted a special form on its official site for those around the world wanting to send a letter to the Russian Embassy to free the activists. According to Greenpeace, more than a million people supported the activists. The Netherlands foreign ministry declared that they had applied to the UN's Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in order to resolve the dispute with Russia. In addition, a group of eleven Nobel Prize laureates wrote an open letter on the 17th of October asking the Russian president to drop charges against 30 Greenpeace activists.

On the 5th of October the tension between two countries grew when Russian embassy’s diplomat Dmitry Borodin was beaten in his flat by the police and briefly detained. The police reacted on the neighbors’ complaints which were worried about the children abuse by Mr. Borodin. Vladimir Putin responded immediately commenting this issue as "a fragrant violation of the Vienna Convention" on diplomatic relations. Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans offered soon an apology although he said that he "personally understands" the police’s action.

On 16th of October deputy chief of the Dutch mission in Moscow, Onno Elderenbosch was attacked in his flat. According to Russian news media outlets the attackers introduced themselves as electricians, rushed in the apartment, beat the diplomat and scrawled a heart and the letters LGBT in pink lipstick on a mirror before fleeing the scene. The Russian Foreign Ministry promised to take steps to detain the attackers trying not to connect the case with early political events.

Russia's chief sanitary inspector Gennady Onishchenko threatened early this month to ban imports of Dutch dairy products and tulips in which were unexpectedly discovered serious problems of "insect infestation" and other biological threats.

This year was supposed to feature the cultural and historical exchange between the two countries when the Russia-Netherlands 2013 Year of Friendship was announced, but so far it only triggered intense conflicts between Moscow and The Hague.

Edited by: Réka Blazsek 
Photo credits: Aligency