Dutch Foreign Minister Resigns After Lying About Russia Meeting

(Bloomberg) -- Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra quit his post after admitting he lied about attending a 2006 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, stepping down the same day he had been scheduled to travel to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart.

The politician, a member of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberal VVD party, announced his resignation in The Hague on Tuesday at the start of a debate where members of parliament wanted to question him. Zijlstra said he doesn’t want to burden his position, saying the way he handled the matter was the “biggest mistake” in his career.

Zijlstra, who became foreign affairs minister in October, is the first member of the current cabinet to leave. His departure constitutes a major embarrassment to Rutte, a little over 100 days into his third cabinet and just over a month before municipal elections that are seen as a gauge of the government’s popularity. During Rutte’s second cabinet, his team saw seven forced departures -- including five of the VVD.

Putin’s Dacha

As VVD leader in parliament, Zijlstra had said publicly in 2016 that he was at a meeting at Putin’s dacha, saying the president had spoken about his Great Russia aspirations, according to Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant. On Monday, Zijlstra admitted to that newspaper he didn’t attend the meeting, adding he had borrowed the story to protect the source who was at the gathering. On Tuesday, De Volkskrant said that source was former Royal Dutch Shell Plc CEO Jeroen van der Veer, who told the newspaper Zijlstra had misinterpreted the comments.

Forming his third coalition government took Rutte, who will turn 51 tomorrow, more than 220 days as the March 2017 general election left the country’s political landscape splintered. Most parties refused to consider an alliance with Geert Wilders’s anti-Islam Freedom Party, which came in second after Rutte’s VVD party, triggering the long search for an alternative coalition.

The Netherlands has informed Russia about the cancellation of Zijlstra’s trip, RIA Novosti reported, citing the Russian Foreign Ministry.

The relationship between the Netherlands and Russia has been strained since the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in 2014 in eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 people aboard. Dutch media had reported that one of the topics on the agenda of the now-canceled meeting had been MH17.

Russia has characterized Zijlstra’s statements about Putin and "Great Russia" as “fake news” and part of a campaign to portray the country as an aggressor.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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