Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra later said he had not attended the meeting but stood by the gist of what he claimed Russian President Vladimir Putin had said
Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra was in hot water Monday after admitting he lied about attending a controversial 2006 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The country’s new top diplomat admitted over the weekend that “contrary to his previous claims, he was never present at the meeting with the Russian president,” the centre-left daily De Volkskrant said.
The revelation is an embarrassment for Zijlstra as he heads to Moscow on Tuesday to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
Zijlstra has now been urged to explain his conduct to the lower house of parliament before leaving for Russia, with a parliamentary source telling AFP “it could be as early as tomorrow (Tuesday) afternoon, but it depends on the format of the debate”.
“As I would like to explain to parliament tomorrow, I wanted to reveal important news and protect my source,” Zijlstra told the NOS public broadcaster Monday.
“I did it in a way that was not only unwise, but even stupid. I told a lie. I can’t take that away, that’s the truth and I can’t turn back the clock,” he said.
A member of Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s Liberal VVD party — the leading party in the country’s ruling coalition — Zijlstra had previously insisted he was present at the meeting at Putin’s dacha 12 years ago which included Jeroen van der Veer, Shell’s former chief executive.
A former Shell contractor, Zijlstra told members at a VVD congress in May 2016 he was there “in the background as an assistant” during the meeting in which Putin allegedly spoke about his definition of a “Greater Russia”, the paper said.
“I clearly heard Vladimir Putin’s answer about what his understanding was of ‘Greater Russia’,” Zijlstra told the audience.
Putin “wants to go back to a ‘Greater Russia’ and his answer was that it included Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States,” he said at the time.
– ‘Crux of story is true’ –
Zijlstra’s appointment in October as foreign minister had 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 Monday about the issue, Rutte said “the content is true, but he should not have claimed to be somewhere when he was not”.
Rutte however said he still found his foreign minister to be credible as “the crux of the story is true,” he told reporters.
Christian Democrat leader Sybrand Buma, whose CDA party forms part of Rutte’s four-party ruling coalition, said he would support an opposition party request for a debate with Zijlstra.
Buma said however his party continued to support Zijlstra and would like to see him “return by the end of the week and simply continue with his job”.
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.
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