The Hague (AFP) – Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra resigned 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 Rutte’s fledgling and fragile four-party coalition.
The drama came after 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.
Rutte then found himself in the firing line, when MPs grilled him about why he had not informed parliament sooner after being told about Zijlstra’s deception on January 29.
“It was an error of judgement on my part,” Rutte said.
“I didn’t think this affair would have such a political fallout. I underestimated the impact of this lie.”
– Lack of experience –
Zijlstra, a member of 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 told AFP that the Moscow “meeting will not go ahead, for obvious reasons” and they would try to look “at a later date”.
Stepping down, Zijlstra told MPs 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 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,” 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.”
– Fake news –
A former Shell contractor, Zijlstra told a VVD party congress in 2106 that during the meeting Putin allegedly spoke about his definition of a “Greater Russia”.
Putin “wants to go back to a ‘Greater Russia’ and his answer was that it included Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States,” 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 “great-power ambitions and the desire to recreate ‘the Soviet Empire’ do not hold up,” the embassy added, saying such claims were “conceived in someone’s inflamed imagination”.
It was not immediately clear who would replace 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.