Europe News

The Netherlands, a nation in mourning but mindful of ties to Russia

Thomas Erdbrink
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte
Getty Images

Flags flew at half-staff Friday in this small but extremely international country, one that is accustomed to standing on the forefront of global cultural debates over such things as gay rights, euthanasia and marijuana policies. But on Thursday, after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the Netherlands found itself thrust squarely into an unaccustomed role at the center of the realpolitik of the conflict in Ukraine.

It seemed as if everyone in the Netherlands, a country of 16 million people, knew someone among the 189 Dutch nationals killed in the crash, whether personally, or as a friend of a friend, or simply by the familiarity of celebrity, as with Senator Willem Witteveen and the AIDS specialist Joep Lange.

Like Dr. Lange, a scientist, many of those on board were activists traveling to AIDS 2014, an international conference in Melbourne, Australia, at which former President Bill Clinton is scheduled to speak. There were many others, of course: a florist couple on vacation; a young employee of the human rights organization Amnesty International; children accompanying their parents on holiday excursions. All were sad testaments to one of the worst plane disasters in the country's history.

Read More Aviation safety in spotlight after MH17 tragedy

For the Dutch, avid travelers but also keen business people, the prospect that Russian-backed separatists might be responsible for the downing of Flight 17 poses a major dilemma.

The Dutch passion for travel is as old as the country, with its low-lying, swampy areas unfit for agriculture and its small size forcing ambitious Dutch to look beyond their borders. "This small nation is used to getting its impulses from abroad," said Geert Mak, a prominent Dutch author and historian.

And while the disaster has touched so many here, the government is also mindful that Russia is the country's third-largest trade partner and that business is growing, especially natural gas.

Reflecting those ties, Prime Minister Mark Rutte refused to go as far as President Obama, saying at a news conference on Friday that he was not yet convinced that the plane had been taken down by a missile.

"It seems MH17 was shot down, but we have no exact information on what caused the disaster," Mr. Rutte said on state television.

The prime minister's reaction illustrates the small maneuvering space the Dutch have when it comes to their relations with Russia, said Alexander Pechtold, one of the country's main opposition leaders, who heads D66, a liberal democratic party.

More from the New York Times:
Among the Victims: One U.S. Citizen and a Dutch Student at Indiana
With Grief on Top of Grief, Malaysians Are Tested on Flight 370's Lessons
U.S. Sees Evidence of Russian Links to Jet's Downing

"We are a small country, dependent on our exports, and unlike the United States, we cannot always react from our moral high grounds," Mr. Pechtold said. "Still, if it is proven that the Russians have their fingerprints on this horrible event, we cannot look in the other direction."

Mr. Mak said that the possible Russian support for Ukrainian separatists places the Dutch in a difficult position.

"Imagine that had been 189 Americans on that plane," he said. "We have a serious bone to pick with Russia after this horrible incident.

Read More The stories of those who perished on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17

"Especially if it turns out that Putin has armed these men," he said of the Ukrainian separatists.

There are other sources of friction between the countries, which in 2013 celebrated 400 years of relations, dating to when Peter the Great bought his naval ships from Dutch shipyards.

But anger over President Vladimir V. Putin's treatment of gays and lesbians spoiled the party, with gay rights activists staging protests and draping Amsterdam's bridges in rainbow flags. During a dinner with King Willem-Alexander, Mr. Putin could hear protesters shouting slogans against him. Later, he joked that he was happy the protesters had not stripped naked for him.

Liberal Dutch activism, which has put the country at the forefront of abortion rights, opposition to the death penalty and tolerance of drug use and prostitution, has deep roots, many here say.

Yet, the Netherlands' fame as an international "gidsland," or guiding country, on moral issues has given way more recently, Mr. Mak said, to notoriety as a caldron of right-wing populist parties, political assassinations and a populist figurehead, the anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders.

"Sometimes we confuse foreigners by having these different faces," Mr. Mak said, adding that this was also the way for a smaller country to survive and be prosperous. "Now we are angry, angry over the fact that 189 Dutchmen have been killed, but at the same time we realize we need our ties with Russia. Activism is a way for us to do what we can."

Pim de Kuijer, a former European Commission diplomat, was also en route to the AIDS conference. A couple of years ago, he famously came out as being gay during a stand-up comedy routine in a well-known cafe in Amsterdam. After that experience, Mr. de Kuijer, 32, committed himself to activism of all sorts.

Read More Malaysia appeals to world for help to retrieve bodies

His passion for equal rights and democracy even brought him to Ukraine as a foreign election observer during the May 25 presidential election, after the Ukrainian revolution that brought down pro-Russian leaders.

Mr. de Kuijer watched the chocolate producer Petro O. Poroshenko win the vote and was pleased, a close friend and former employer said.

"Pim was so proud to contribute to democracy in the Ukraine," said Lousewies van der Laan, a Dutch politician living in Slovenia. The two had met last week over coffee at a Starbucks in The Hague. "It is just so bizarre to think he was killed by a rocket fired from that country."

Follow us on Twitter: @CNBCWorld