Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra announced his resignation on Tuesday, just a day after he admitted to having repeatedly lied about attending a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin more than a decade ago.
Zijlstra, a member of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), told parliament on Tuesday that the country deserves a foreign minister whose credibility is above any doubt. He said the lie he told on at least two occasions in 2016 was “by far the biggest mistake” of his career.
“We are privileged to live in a country where the truth is important,” Zijlstra said. “To not burden the office of the foreign minister, I see no other option than to offer my resignation to His Majesty the King. I do this with regret in my heart, but in full conviction that the Netherlands deserves a foreign minister who is above any doubt.”
Zijlstra, who choked up as he announced his resignation, hugged Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the end of his statement.
Zijlstra, who took office in October, said at a party congress in May 2016 that he had attended an event at Putin’s country retreat in 2006. He claimed the Russian leader spoke of plans for regional expansion, but on Monday he admitted that he wasn’t there and the source for his story refuted his interpretation.
“In early 2006 I was present in the dacha of Vladimir Putin,” Zijlstra said at the party congress. “I was there as an employee [of a company]. I was tucked away in the back of the room where it was taking place. But I could hear very well what Vladimir Putin answered when asked about his definition of Greater Russia.”
Zijlstra, who warned about the possibility of a future war with Russia, continued: “Greater Russia is what [Putin] wants to go back to. And his answer was: ‘That is Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and the Baltic states. And, oh yes, Kazakhstan was nice to have.'”
Questions about the story were raised in October when the Dutch newspaper AD published a profile about Zijlstra. The article said Zijlstra and Shell executive Jeroen van der Veer attended a meeting with Putin “somewhere in the 90s,” but Van der Veer denied meeting Putin in the company of Zijlstra.
The foreign minister admitted on Monday that he had lied, but insisted that the story itself was true. “I tried to protect my source this way,” he told NOS in an interview, adding that he regretted having lied about it. He said in a second interview that he has only one source for the story.
Rutte and members of his coalition initially expressed support for the foreign minister because the basis of the story was believed to be true, but Zijlstra’s position became increasingly uncertain when Van der Veer – who turned out to be the source – said his story had been misinterpreted and told with false quotes. He explained that Putin was simply speaking in a historical context.
Zijlstra’s admission came just a day before he was due to travel to Moscow to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the first time. The Dutch government, led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, has repeatedly accused Russia of spreading fake news in the Netherlands.
In a statement, the Russian embassy criticized the Dutch government and media for the allegations that Russia is spreading disinformation and is seeking to create a Greater Russia. “It is presented as something self-evident and not requiting any proof. Isn’t this an example of fake news directed against our country?,” the embassy said, adding that the suggestion of a Greater Russia was “conceived in someone’s inflamed imagination.”
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