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Diplomacy

Dutch foreign minister admits lying about meeting with Putin on eve of trip to Moscow

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 February, 2018, 10:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 February, 2018, 10:23pm

In a potentially damaging admission on the eve of his first visit to Russia as a member of the Dutch government, Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra on Monday acknowledged lying about attending a meeting with President Vladimir Putin in 2006.

Zijlstra issued a statement confirming the admission he made in an interview published in Monday’s edition of respected Dutch daily De Volkskrant.

“Contrary to his previous claims, he was never present at the meeting with the Russian president,” the centre-left paper wrote.

A member of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberal VVD party – the leading party in the country’s ruling coalition – Zijlstra has in the past said he was present as an employee of energy giant Shell at Putin’s country retreat when the Russian president said he considered Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states as part of a “Greater Russia”. He told members at a VVD congress in May 2016 he was there “in the background as an assistant” during the meeting.

“I clearly heard Vladimir Putin’s answer about what his understanding was of ‘Greater Russia’,” Zijlstra told the audience.

In a written statement, Zijlstra said he was not present at the meeting in 2006 but heard the story from somebody who was there.

He said he considered Putin’s statements so geopolitically important that he spoke about them publicly and took credit for hearing the comments as a way of protecting his source.

“The manner in which I wanted to protect my source and underscore my message about Russia was not sensible, that is crystal clear,” Zijlstra said.

Zijlstra’s appointment in October raised eyebrows in The Netherlands because of his perceived lack of diplomatic credentials.

“His spin doctors” had used the story of the Putin meeting “to ward off criticism about his lack of foreign experience,” Volkskrant said.

Asked on Monday about the issue, Rutte said “the content is true, but he should not have claimed to be somewhere when he was not”. Rutte told reporters he still found his foreign minister to be credible as “the crux of the story is true”.

Zijlstra is due to fly to Moscow on Tuesday for a meeting on Wednesday with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. Among other things, Zijlstra is due to discuss with Lavrov the Dutch-led probe into the downing of Malaysia Airlines MH17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014.