In the Netherlands, first came the shock, then the rage and now this question: Can this nation go back to business as usual with Russia if investigators conclude that President Vladimir Putin’s government supported pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine who killed Dutch citizens?
On July 17, the Netherlands learned that Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 had crashed in eastern Ukraine, killing all on board, including 194 Dutch citizens.
Among them was the temporary owner of a popular children’s book by Gerard van Gemert called Between the Posts, checked out from a Dutch library and found among the wreckage.
US and Ukraine intelligence said they believed that rebels had fired a surface-to-air missile, possibly supplied by Russia, and had mistaken the civilian vessel for a military transport plane.
Then came reports of pro-Russian rebels rifling through belongings of the dead for valuables, while rescue workers were prevented from accessing the site to recover and transport victims home.
“You first get the news that your husband was killed, and within two or three days, you see images of some thug removing the wedding band from their hands,” Netherlands Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans said in a speech at the UN on Monday.
“To my dying day, I will not understand why it took so long for rescue workers to be allowed to do their difficult jobs.”
Pieter Broertjes, the mayor of Hilversum, meanwhile apologised for suggesting on a Dutch radio station that Vladimir Putin’s daughter, Maria, should be deported, even though it’s not clear she currently lives in the country.
The remark, he said in a tweet, came from a “feeling of impotence that many people will recognise”.
When the victims were finally brought home, the Dutch went into their first day of national mourning in more than 50 years.
Nilva Martina, a 63-year-old retired teacher who lost a close friend and relative, Kevin Jesurun, in the tragedy, expressed both anger and a sense of powerlessness.
“In the beginning I was angry,” she said, while attending an evening memorial march in Amsterdam on Wednesday evening.
“I said, ‘Netherlands and America, throw bombs, destroy everyone, destroy Putin’.”
Now, Martina says she is less angry and more resigned to the idea that nothing much will be done at all.
“There is no alternative. Europe needs Putin,” she said.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters in The Hague on Thursday that “we will make sure that justice will be done for all people that lost their lives” and that the downing of the plane was “a crime against humanity”.
In addition, an opinion poll after the crash in Dutch daily De Telegraaf said 78 percent of the Dutch want to impose sanctions on Russia even if that harms the economy.
It is far from clear how tough the Dutch will ultimately be in the months ahead.
This small nation is heavily dependent on its trading and banking ties to Russia and, as a founding member of the EU, is limited in its freedom to impose unilateral economic sanctions.
The Dutch pride themselves on their cultural openness and commercial pragmatism.
The Netherlands’ $800 billion (R8 trillion) economy punches above its weight class and the country is one of the richest nations on a per-capita basis.
Bernard Bot, a former Dutch Foreign Affairs minister, doesn’t consider confrontation with Russia wise or justified.
For one thing, there’s no evidence the rebels intentionally targeted the Malaysian flight, let alone Dutch citizens.
In addition: “Russia will remain our neighbour, we share our borders, we depend on Russian gas,” he said.
“There are a 101 reasons why we have to figure out how to resolve this issue.”
Unilever chief executive Paul Polman, a Dutchman who was in India’s Taj Mahal Palace & Tower hotel in Mumbai during a 2008 terrorist attack, said the problems in Ukraine and elsewhere “have their roots in poverty and in exclusion”.
Polman also said his company, which gets about 3 percent of revenue from Russia, had no plans to pull back from the country. “We have our long-term plans in every country, including Russia, and they are not changing right now”, he said.
Royal Dutch Shell, which lost four employees in the crash, has declined to comment on whether its business in Russia would be disrupted by the incident.
The company has about $6.7bn of oil and gas producing assets in Russia, is exploring for shale gas and plans to expand its Sakhalin-2 project there, according to research by Deutsche Bank.
Shell, the eighth-biggest company by market value, employs 92 000 people worldwide, making the oil producer the fifth-biggest employer among companies listed and traded in the Netherlands.
Its pension fund, which holds e22.4bn (R317.04bn) in assets, is the nation’s sixth-biggest.
Royal Philips called the incident “unacceptable”, while saying governments should lead the investigation.
The commercial ties that bind the Netherlands and Russia go back to the days of Tsar Peter the Great, who spent part of 1697 learning shipbuilding while living in Zaandam.
Two years later, the Russians set up a diplomatic mission in The Hague.
Today, Russia is the Netherlands’ seventh-biggest trading partner and critical investment destination for the Anglo-Dutch multinationals, such as Shell and Unilever. In 2013, both countries celebrated their bilateral ties in a year-long series of promotional events. At the Sochi Winter Olympics, Putin shared a beer with King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands at the Holland Heineken House.
Russia’s biggest oil, gas, mining and retail companies have moved tens of billions of corporate assets to the Netherlands or have used financial institutions in Amsterdam to route profits to low-tax, offshore financial centres like Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands.
The Netherlands, along with Cyprus and the British Virgin Islands, is a major transit point for the “round-tripping” of Russian investment money, according to a report last year by a UN agency.
Under that technique, Russian money comes into the Netherlands, is moved out to low-tax offshore financial centres and then sent back to Russia, offering legal protection against expropriation or arbitrary acts by the government.
“The Netherlands as a country will be juggling the fact that on the one hand it may want to hurt Russia in some way,” Gerard Meussen, a tax law professor at Radboud University in Nijmegen, said.
“On the other hand, we value our position as a country with an attractive tax climate. We are still merchants.”
Winding back Russian commercial ties would be particularly painful now.
The Dutch economy has experienced three recessions since the 2007 financial crisis.
In 2012, it earned about one-third of its income from trade, according to the Netherlands Enterprise Agency.
The Dutch port of Rotterdam is an important transport point for Russian energy exports.
The Netherlands also has to pay heed to the EU’s broader policy response and that means taking into account Germany and France, which have different economic interests at stake.
Instructing Dutch banks to withhold financings from Russian companies would have little meaning if other regional banks stepped into the gap.
“In practical terms, it’s almost impossible to do something outside of the EU,” Louise van Schaik, a senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute – a Dutch diplomatic think tank, said.
“There is a lot of anger and calls for revenge, but that may not be a sound long-term strategy.”
Nor was ignoring Russia’s assertiveness and instability in the Ukraine, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, a retired Dutch politician and former secretary general of Nato, said.
In an interview with Het Financieele Dagblad, he called on Europe to stop slashing its defence budgets.
The current international situation was “without a doubt the most serious crisis since the Cold War and I don’t dare to predict how this will end”.
In the meantime, this country of 16.9 million continues to cope with a grievous wound and an effort is under way to identify the rebels directly involved in the downing of the Malaysian jet.
Public prosecutors in the Netherlands could try foreign nationals accused of war crimes against Dutch citizens, according to Willem van Genugten, a professor of international law at Tilburg University.
Yet even bringing the shooters to justice would be difficult if the suspects go into hiding in Russia.
Simone Veldhuizen van Zanten, who also attended the march in Amsterdam, said the crisis had left her “anxious” about the reaction of the Dutch government and other countries.
“I feel powerless to do anything,” she said. – Bloomberg