MOSCOW • 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 is distinct.
The timing of the Russian crackdown on Dutch flowers has closely coincided with important milestones in the Dutch-led probe into the shooting down last summer of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 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.
The Dutch probe has so far corroborated the US' early assertion that the plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile supplied by Russia to separatists in eastern Ukraine. And every major step in the investigation has been met with enhanced inspections of Dutch flower exports by Russian agencies. On July 27, the 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 United Nations Security Council a proposal to form a tribunal to prosecute and punish those responsible for shooting down the plane. The vote forced Russia into casting the sole veto.
On Aug 10, Rosselkhoznadzor stepped up inspections for thrips and leaf miner. On Aug 11, after Dutch prosecutors 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 Ukraine, Russian inspectors made a big show of setting fire to boxes of roses and chrysanthemums in two Russian towns.
The tit-for-tat has been so obvious that even pro-Kremlin commentators are saying the flower burning is intended as a warning to the Netherlands over risks to trade, if the investigation proceeds unfavourably for Russia.
"This is connected to the Malaysian Boeing," Mr Sergei Markov, a former member of Parliament in the pro-government United Russia Party, said in a phone interview. "Russia is certain that the Dutch government is falsifying this investigation", but cannot say so directly.
The stepped-up 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," Mr 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 per cent of all fresh cut flowers and houseplants sold in Russia, a trade worth about €283 million (S$440 million) last year. So far, only a few hundred blooms have gone up in flames, not a significant disruption to flower shop deliveries.
Many Russians assume the flower war will play out pretty much like the much publicised 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 at upscale cafes in the Russian capital.
NEW YORK TIMES