Halbe Zijlstra leaves the Dutch parliament after he announcing his resignation as foreign minister
The Hague (AFP) - New Dutch Foreign Minister Halbe Zijlstra resigned Tuesday, after admitting he had lied about his presence at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I see no other option today than to hand in my resignation to his majesty the King,” a tearful Zijlstra told MPs in a hastily called session of parliament.
Zijlstra had only been in the post for four months, and the dramatic events came just hours before he was due to leave on an official trip to Moscow to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
“This is by far the biggest mistake I have made in my career,” he admitted to Dutch politicians in the lower house of parliament, watched by Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Zijlstra is a member of Rutte’s Liberal VVD party, and his resignation is the first major scandal to shake the fragile four-party coalition cobbled together after record talks last year.
As he left the chamber he was given a hug by Rutte, who then came under fire from other MPs about how long he had known about his minister’s deception.
Zijlstra had been due to meet Lavrov on Wednesday to discuss among other things the 2014 downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by a missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian rebels over Ukraine.
The tragedy in which all 298 people on board died, most of them Dutch, has soured ties, and led to accusations that Moscow is not being truthful about the events.
A Dutch foreign ministry official told AFP that the Moscow “meeting will not go ahead, for obvious reasons” and they would try to look “at a later date”.
Stepping down, Zijlstra told MPs Tuesday that the credibility of the country’s foreign minister must be “beyond doubt, both inside and outside of the country”.
His resignation came after he falsely claimed that he had attended a 2006 meeting in Putin’s dacha which included Jeroen van der Veer, Shell’s former chief executive.
“I have spoken about an incident of great importance, saying I was there in person, while that was not the case,” Zijlstra told MPs on Tuesday.
- ‘Fake news’ -
Halbe Zijlstra had only served as Dutch foreign minister for four months
“I wanted to tell this story convincingly without revealing my source, it was obviously the wrong choice. I should not have done it. I am sorry.”
A former Shell contractor, Zijlstra had told members of his Liberal VVD party in 2106 that during the meeting Putin allegedly spoke about his definition of a “Greater Russia”.
Putin “wants to go back to a ‘Greater Russia’ and his answer was that it included Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States,” Zijlstra had claimed.
The Russian embassy angrily waded into the scandal on Tuesday, accusing the Dutch of spreading “fake news”.
“In the Netherlands, Russia is being blamed for disseminating disinformation. Dutch officials are constantly making such unfounded statements,” it said in a statement.
Trying to attribute to Russia “great-power ambitions and the desire to recreate ‘the Soviet Empire’ do not hold up,” the embassy added, saying such claims were “conceived in someone’s inflamed imagination”.
Zijlstra’s appointment in October as foreign minister had raised eyebrows because of his perceived lack of diplomatic credentials.
But the Volkskrant newspaper said “his spin doctors” had used the story of the Putin meeting “to ward off criticism about his lack of foreign experience”.
It was not immediately clear who would replace Zijlstra as the country’s top diplomat.