MH17: Amid Netherlands' inquiry, Russia burns dutch flowers

A flower market in Moscow, Aug. 11, 2015. — NYT pic
A flower market in Moscow, Aug. 11, 2015. — NYT pic

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MOSCOW, Aug 18 — In recent years, trade relations between Russia and the Netherlands have at times blossomed and at times wilted.

This summer, they went up in smoke.

A week after Russia began burning and burying European food items like cheese and peaches deemed to have been imported illegally, Russian agricultural inspectors started torching flowers from the Netherlands that they said were insect ridden, in what has become known locally as the flower war.

While similar to the food demolition, which brought widespread outrage as well as the production of satirical videos like the popular “Death of a Parmesan”, the politics behind the flower war are distinct.

The timing of the Russian crackdown on Dutch flowers has closely coincided with important milestones in the Dutch-led investigation into the shooting down last summer of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, which killed all 298 people on board, most of them from the Netherlands.

Russia denies any involvement in the tragedy and has made the unsubstantiated and, Western officials say, far-fetched charge that a Ukrainian fighter jet or missile downed the plane.

But step-by-step, the methodical Dutch investigation has been corroborating the United States’ early assertion that the airliner was destroyed by a surface-to-air missile supplied by Russia to separatists in eastern Ukraine. And every important step in the investigation has been met with enhanced inspections of Dutch flower exports by Russian agencies.

On July 27, the Russian agricultural inspection agency, Rosselkhoznadzor, said it had discovered 183 shipments of Dutch flowers infested with numerous insects, including California thrips. That was two days before the Netherlands and three other countries put to a vote in the UN Security Council a proposal to form a tribunal to prosecute and punish those responsible for shooting down the plane.

The vote forced Russia into the embarrassing position of vetoing the proposal alone. On Aug. 10, Rosselkhoznadzor stepped up inspections for thrips and leaf miner.

On Aug. 11, after prosecutors from the Netherlands said crash investigators had found parts of what could be a Russian-made surface-to-air missile system in or near the debris field in eastern Ukraine, Russian inspectors made a big show of setting fire to boxes of roses and chrysanthemums in two Russian towns.

“These are freshly cut flowers from the Netherlands infected with western California flower thrips,” the chief sanitary inspector for Rosselkhoznadzor, Yekaterina Slakova, said in a televised appearance, as workers burned boxes of roses.

The tit-for-tat has been so obvious that even pro-Kremlin commentators have dropped the pretense, saying the flower burning is intended as a warning to the Netherlands over risks to trade, if the investigation proceeds unfavorably for Russia.

“This is connected to the Malaysian Boeing,” Sergei A. Markov, a former member of parliament in the pro-government United Russia party, said in a telephone interview. “Russia is certain that the Dutch government is falsifying this investigation,” he said, but cannot say so directly.

The stepped-up flower inspections, he said, are the Kremlin’s means of communicating displeasure with the inquiry.

“It is an attempt to talk in not such an obvious way, softly, a bit byzantine,” Markov said of the message of the flower burning. “I generally like byzantine. But this is not a great quality in this case. Our diplomats should have just called things by their names.”

Dutch floral industry officials agree that the flower inspections have been mostly for show, so far.

With its greenhouses, auction houses and trucks and trains running like clockwork, the Netherlands provides an estimated 40 percent of all fresh cut flowers and houseplants sold in Russia, last year worth about U$S314 million (RM1.2 billion) at the current exchange rate.

So far at least, only a few hundred blooms have gone up in flames, not a significant disruption to flower shop deliveries.

“The Russians wanted to show they are serious about the issue, but it didn’t really have a huge impact,” said Robert Roodenburg, director of the Dutch Association of Wholesale Floricultural Products.

Lex van Horssen, a spokesman at FloraHolland, the Netherlands’ largest flower auction house, declined to speculate on the coincidence of the flower burning in Russia and Dutch progress in investigating the plane crash.

“To be quite honest, we have a business to run, and that is something different than the political situation,” van Horssen said.

“We will not mix our business with this political issue. That’s not a good idea.”

Many Russians assume the flower war will play out pretty much like the much publicized destruction of European food imports this month, with a big show for the cameras and little follow through.

They note that European cheeses are still widely available, somehow, at upscale cafes in the Russian capital. On a recent, velvety midsummer evening on a summer terrace, a waiter delivered a groaning cheese platter, staring blankly when asked where the cheese had come from.

Alexei A. Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and anti-corruption activist, last week republished public tenders from state agencies ordering banned food products.

The Moscow mayor’s office, for example, ordered catering worth U$S71,500 that included Brie, Gruyère, Roquefort and Dorblu. The Ministry of Interior published a tender for catering that included mozzarella and Parmesan.

“They eat Dorblu cheese, dab their mouths with a napkin, and then turn to the camera and talk about how right it is to destroy European products,” Navalny wrote on his blog. — New York Times 

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