Dutch Rage Over MH17 Strengthens Rutte in Putin Standoff
A two-hour break was all Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte got for his summer vacation.
After arriving in southern Germany in the early afternoon of July 17 for a short holiday, Rutte took a call from Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Within a few hours, he was on a government plane back to the Netherlands. At Schiphol Airport, he spoke with a grim face about a “beautiful summer day that ended pitch black.” Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 had crashed in Ukraine on a flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, sparking suspicion it was shot down by pro-Russian rebels.
Amid the mourning and anger in the Netherlands and the furor around the world that followed the deaths of 196 Dutch citizens and 102 others, Rutte, 47, has emerged with his standing enhanced. That raises his chances of presiding over the first Dutch government to see out a full term in more than a decade.
“He picked up the phone himself and started calling, ahead of European decision making,” Harry van Bommel, a lawmaker from the opposition Socialist Party and a member of parliament’s foreign affairs committee since 1998, said in a phone interview. “The dignity, the speed and the carefulness, all of that has been appreciated,” Van Bommel said.
In standing up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Rutte risks hurting the Dutch economy and losing jobs as a result of sanctions. Yet his moves to push a Dutch-led probe into the disaster and to sanction Russia for a failure to press the rebels to cooperate have heightened his profile abroad and drawn praise at home, boosting poll ratings that had been hit by the government’s austerity program.
After the crash, Rutte and his team immediately outlined the government’s priorities: repatriate the remains of all victims and their belongings, investigate the cause and bring to justice those responsible.
Rutte, who remained upbeat throughout the euro-area crisis, has shown anger, frustration and restraint in the past month. He’s said he had moments when he felt the urge to send in the Marines to secure the site in Ukraine, and after meeting some of the 1,000 relatives of the victims behind closed doors in Nieuwegein, near Utrecht, four days after the crash, Rutte was visibly moved.
“Rutte’s tone was very good, straight from the beginning,” Dick Zandee, senior research fellow in security and defense at the Clingendael Institute in The Hague, said by phone. “The Netherlands probably decided on purpose not to use strong words against Russia, because the primary purpose was to bring back the victims and their personal belongings.”
With fighting intensifying in eastern Ukraine between government troops and the separatists, Rutte hasn’t yet been able to deliver on all of his promises. The forensic mission at the site has been halted amid fighting, it’s not clear whether all of the remains have been flown back and personal belongings are still scattered across the site. The Dutch Safety Board says it can’t yet tell when the first technical findings of its investigation will be announced.
Malaysia Airlines is now struggling to stem losses and repair its image after the downing in Ukraine and the disappearance of a jet in March. The company is considering job cuts, a review of aircraft orders and replacing its chief executive officer, people familiar with the plan said.
Rutte and Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans, from the Labor Party, have still seen an increase in their personal approval ratings. About 46 percent of the population wants the government to stay in power, up from 33 percent a year ago, a poll published Aug. 17 by Maurice de Hond’s Peil.nl found.
The prime minister took a cautious line in a press conference in The Hague the day after the crash, saying that even though everyone had “suspicions and theories” about the cause, “I want the exact facts on the table first before making any statements.”
The following day, after images circulated of the rebels going through victims’ personal belongings at the crash site, he told reporters he was late for their news conference because he’d had an “intense phone conversation with Putin” in which he told the Russian president “that the chance is fading that he can show the world he’s serious he wants to help.”
Timmermans, who delivered a widely cited speech at the United Nations days after the disaster, became the face the Netherlands has presented to the outside world in the immediate aftermath, while Rutte spent time on the phone with Germany’s Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama. Rutte had at least half a dozen calls with Putin in the two weeks after the disaster.
It was also due to Rutte that Merkel “has become more negative toward Russia,” Bertjan Verbeek, professor of international relations at Radboud University in Nijmegen, said by phone.
Hardened attitudes within the European Union following the disaster led to a broadening of sanctions as the 28-nation bloc curbed Russian access to bank financing and advanced technology.
With Russia slapping sanctions on food imports from the EU in retaliation, the Netherlands is feeling some pain. As much as 300 million euros ($400 million) in income and 5,000 jobs may be lost because of the sanctions, the Central Bureau of Statistics said Aug. 19.
The Dutch-led probe into the cause of the crash also carries a risk, depending on the outcome, Zandee said.
“It’s likely that Russia will link the outcome to the Netherlands, despite the fact that the investigation is carried out by an independent body,” he said. “If the outcome is very negative for Russia, it could backfire on the Netherlands.”
Latest opinion polls show Rutte’s party, the Liberals or VVD in Dutch, gaining six seats since the crash while its Labor coalition partner would add three. Dutch polls show how many lawmakers parties would receive in the 150-member lower house of parliament under a system that gives them a seat for each 0.67 percent of the vote.
How long Rutte’s improved fortunes will last is unclear; political polling in the Netherlands in recent years has shown how rapidly party fortunes can change. The governing parties are still down 36 seats on their showing in the September 2012 elections, when they won 79 seats between them.
“I think a prime minister must grow and get through all sorts of experiences,” Alexander Pechtold, who leads the opposition Democrats D66 party, said on Dutch NOS television Aug. 19. “This experience forms any politician.”
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