Brussels, 6 September 2004 (RFE/RL) -- When the European Union's Dutch presidency took office in July, it did so with what appeared to be a proven record of handling Russia.
Its predecessor, Ireland, was seen by many as being inexperienced in dealing with Moscow. The Netherlands, though, seemed to have an excellent pedigree after a tough chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) last year.
Now, however, the Netherlands has started with a blunder that may cast a shadow over the remainder of its presidency.
On 3 September, Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot appeared to question Russia's reaction to the crisis. Speaking at an EU meeting, he said that although fully sympathetic, the bloc "would also like to know from the Russian authorities how this tragedy could have happened."
"This is a day when, as I've just said, Russia is in mourning, when there's been an outrageous act of terrorism. I think this is not the moment to go into those kinds of details when we don't have all of the details at our disposal." -- European Commission spokesperson Emma Udwin
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, visiting Lebanon, said on 4 September that Bot's comment had been "insolent." His deputy, Valerii Loshchin, said in Moscow that the statement was "offensive and borders on the sacrilegious."
Bot's office then backtracked, saying Bot had been misquoted.
The European Commission in Brussels, in charge of long-term relations with Russia, took a similar tack. Chief spokesman Reijo Kemppinen told journalists that Bot had made no demands for additional information.
"None of the statements that I saw from the European Union on Friday [3 September] said the things that [were] implied that they said. I did not see anybody demanding information in that respect. I also read very carefully the presidency statement, and I think there are things that were taken out of context, for reasons that I don't know," Kemppinen said.
Bot's initial remarks, made at a press conference, were published on the Dutch presidency's website late on 3 September. On the following day, following the angry rejoinders from Russia, the statement was changed. It now quotes Bot as saying, "In order to better understand what happened in the school, we would like to learn more details from the Russian authorities so we can help each other to combat terrorism in any form anywhere in the world."
A representative of the Dutch presidency told RFE/RL today that Bot had made his statement in French, in response to a question posed by a journalist. It had then apparently been mistranslated on the website.
Kemppinen reiterated the EU's position to journalists in Brussels again today: "We condemn all forms of terrorism, fully and unconditionally. The blame cannot be put on anyone else but those who committed this horrible crime [in Beslan]."
However, RFE/RL has learned from a variety of EU sources that Bot came under significant pressure from some colleagues on 3 September to go beyond expressing sympathy with the Russian authorities.
The foreign ministers of Latvia and Finland were said to have been particularly appalled at the loss of life as a result of the siege in Beslan.
A Latvian news agency (LETA) quotes a representative of Foreign Minister Artis Pabriks as saying Pabriks had told colleagues the EU must take issue with the way Russia appeared to handle the crisis. He said the professionalism of relevant Russian services is in question, adding that the international community should share advice and experience with Russia on how to handle such crises to minimize civilian loss of life.
Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja said in a statement published today on his website that Russia must be asked if the number of victims could have been kept down. He said "Russia's democracy would demonstrate its strength" if the authorities and media could debate such questions openly. Tuomioja added that negotiations, not force, are needed to bring an end to the crisis in Chechnya.
Emma Udwin, another spokesperson for the European Commission, said today that there had been what she called a "genuine misunderstanding." She said blame for what happened in Beslan should rest solely with the hostage-takers and said now is not the time to question Russia.
"This is a day when, as I've just said, Russia is in mourning, when there's been an outrageous act of terrorism. I think this is not the moment to go into those kinds of details when we don't have all of the details at our disposal," Udwin said.
The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, took a more ambiguous stance. Speaking to the media in Rome on Sunday, he, too, said it was not possible to react immediately, but added that "there are still many gray areas" in the reaction of Russian authorities.
At a later stage, Prodi said that a "request for an explanation is legitimate, as is normal between friendly countries."
Bot himself told a Dutch TV channel on 4 September -- after the public retraction of his initial comments -- that the Russian authorities had not resolved the issue "very well."
The unease voiced by some EU ministers echoes wider criticism of Russia's tactics and strategy in many European media outlets over the weekend, ranging from the lack of ambulances at the scene in Beslan to what are seen as attempts by Russian authorities to conceal the true extent of the tragedy.Factbox: Major Terrorist Incidents Tied To Russian-Chechen War For full coverage on the recent wave of terror attacks in Russia, see RFE/RL's webpage on "Terror In Russia".