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Dutch Deaths in MH17 Prompt Angry Calls to Rutte for Action

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Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte
Mark Rutte, Dutch prime minister, at a news conference in the Hague on July 20, 2014. Photographer: Evert-Jan Daniels/AFP/Getty Images

July 22 (Bloomberg) -- The Dutch are angry.

The death of 193 Dutch nationals in the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines jet is prompting this otherwise understated nation to call on Prime Minister Mark Rutte for action and is putting into question the country’s business ties with Russia and President Vladimir Putin.

“The truth is that for too long the Dutch government has coddled the dictator in Moscow, looking past Putin’s blatant offenses against human decency,” Bas Heijne, one of the country’s most-influential opinion makers, wrote in an editorial yesterday.

Rutte, known as a gifted communicator, has drawn criticism for his cautious response to the disaster, and will need all his skills to channel local anger and get support from his European counterparts to punish those responsible for downing MH17. He is seeking European backing for firm action as foreign ministers meet in Brussels today.

“All of the Netherlands feels their anger,” Rutte said in Nieuwegein, south of Amsterdam, after a meeting yesterday with relatives of Dutch citizens who perished. “All of the Netherlands feels their deep grief. All of the Netherlands is standing with the next of kin.”

Putin, already facing sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its role in backing the rebels in Ukraine, is confronting worldwide scorn over the crash as evidence mounts that Russia provided the missile used to down the Malaysian Air jetliner on July 17, killing 298 passengers and crew.

Some in the Netherlands called for a tougher stand against Russia and Putin.

Business Ties

“Enough is enough–intervene!” a front-page headline in the Sunday edition of the country’s biggest newspaper, De Telegraaf, said, calling for NATO intervention against Russia-backed Ukrainian separatist rebels who are suspected of having shot down the plane.

Dutch companies with business interests in Russia are also facing outrage for their relations with Putin. The Netherlands has deep business ties with Russia, ranging from Royal Dutch Shell’s investment in the Sakhalin-2 oil and gas project, to breweries operated by Heineken in several cities.

“In April of this year, when the crisis over Crimea was at its height, [Shell Chief Executive] Ben van Beurden made a point of visiting Putin and saying that no matter the political situation, Shell and Russia had great plans for the future,” Heijne wrote in a commentary for Politico.

Corporate Giants

He also slammed corporate giants Unilever and Royal Philips NV for kowtowing to Putin. Heineken spokesman John Clarke declined to comment on the article, while Unilever officials couldn’t immediately be reached for comment after business hours.

Amsterdam-based Philips, the world’s largest lighting manufacturer, has a diode-producing joint venture with JSC Optoga and a medical-care partnership in Russia. It lost two of its employees in the crash.

“This is unacceptable of course,” Frans van Houten said in an interview with Bloomberg TV yesterday. “But we should leave it to the governments to investigate what exactly transpired, and we should not jump to conclusions.”

Dutch exports to Russia stood at 2.1 billion euros ($2.84 billion) in the first four months of the year, while imports amounted to 6.8 billion euros, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, or CBS.

Tax Haven

A report over the weekend noted that Rostec Corp., a Russian state-controlled conglomerate that includes the maker of the Buk missile suspected in the attack, has domiciled at least one of its units in the Netherlands to take advantage of the country’s low corporate income taxes.

“This is how we are helping Rostec pay less tax on its profits,” said the report on the news website 925.nl. The Dutch-domiciled subsidiary isn’t involved in the weapons business, though.

Rostec includes a company that makes anti-aircraft systems including the Buk missile. Rostec Chief Executive Sergey Chemezov, as well as the company’s Kalashnikov rifle unit, have been placed on a sanctions list by the U.S., although not by the European Union.

Putting Pressure

Meanwhile, Rutte is betting he will get support from Europe in punishing those involved with the downing of the plane as well as those that have hindered access to the crash site.

“I am convinced that Europe will stand shoulder to shoulder -- everybody is putting pressure there where it is needed,” Rutte said. He won political support yesterday in parliament for his approach.

The premier’s strategy is understandable, Mathieu Segers, assistant professor of European integration at the University of Utrecht, said in a televised interview with TV program Een Vandaag.

“In a broader context, the growing unrest on the position of Europe in this conflict, which can be characterized as half-hearted at best, is understandable,” he said. “We need a tougher line on Russia.”

For many Dutch citizens, half measures just won’t do.

“All the pressure possible must be put on Putin and his people to resolve this in the most decent manner, if you ever can speak of decent when it comes to such a tragedy,” said Constant Versteeg, a 62-year-old Dutch national.

To contact the reporter on this story: Fred Pals in Amsterdam at fpals@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Heather Harris at hharris5@bloomberg.net Vidya Root, Celeste Perri

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