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Dutch presidency offends Russians

Posted by Richard Sunday, September 05, 2004

A vicious spat is developing between Russia and the EU after the Dutch presidency appeared to call for an explanation about the handling of the school hostage crisis in North Ossetia that has left over 330 people dead, half of them children.

The remark, issued by Dutch foreign minister Bernard Bot in a written statement late Friday, said that: "All countries in the world need to work together to prevent tragedies like this. But we also would like to know from the Russian authorities how this tragedy could have happened."

The Russian Foreign Ministry has reacted with outrage, declaring that, "Mr Bot's elaborations are an absolute contrast with the wide international support and solidarity with Russia in these tragic days." Continuing in the same vein, it added: "Inappropriate statements by the Dutch minister look odious... and blasphemous… We expect explanations from the Dutch side."

The unfortunate Bot is denying that he meant to cause offence, protesting that he had only sought more information from Moscow and had not intended to criticise. His comments, he feels, have been misunderstood and he is looking to set the record straight.

However, there may be more to this than a simple misunderstanding. The original draft of Bot's statement, expressing solidarity with Russia, was changed after consultation with the ex-Soviet Baltic states – and especially Latvia - which had asked the Dutch foreign minister to "go beyond a simple message of solidarity, and to seek to understand what happened".

These countries have been especially critical of Russia's campaign in Chechnya, so there may have been a slight, but intended note of censure in the message, which has inflamed Russian sensitivities. Whatever the intent, the EU is now on the defensive, at a time when closer relations with Russia have rarely been more important.