Amsterdam, The Netherlands – A golden helmet with the silhouettes of soldiers engraved. Ancient jewels, coins and caskets that are hundreds of years old sit at the University of Amsterdam’s archaeological Allard Pierson Museum. They had been discovered in Crimea and show the richness of the peninsula in the Black Sea.
The exhibition opened in February, when Crimea belonged to Ukraine. In the meantime, however, Russia has sent troops to the peninsula, a referendum was held, and Crimea has seceded from Ukraine and joined Russia.
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As both Moscow and Kiev claim the ownership of the items, the Amsterdam museum finds itself caught in a diplomatic dispute. The “cold conflict” over Crimean gold is in of itself a proxy fight amid the ongoing crisis between Russia and the West.
In a few days the exhibition ends, but the Dutch curators have said they are unsure where to return the gold.
They cannot simply return it to Crimea, explained Yasha Lange, head of communications at the University of Amsterdam. The items are on loan from five museums, four of them located in Crimea. Ukraine considers the items state property. “According to Ukraine, giving them to Crimea would mean they suddenly end up in Russian hands,” Lange told Al Jazeera.
Who does the gold belong to?
Museum property is primary and more fundamental than the property of the state.
Museums in Crimea, on the contrary, want them back. The Tavrida Central Museum in the city of Simferopol has given 132 artifacts to Amsterdam with an insured value of 163,925 euros ($217,000). “They were discovered on Crimean territory,” Andrey Malgin, the museum’s director, said. “Besides, they are part of the cultural heritage of the Crimean people and have nothing to do with the Ukrainian territory.” Therefore, they must be returned to their direct owner and not to the state, Malgin argued.
He explained that, as usual with loan collections, his museum has concluded a contract with its counterpart in Holland “with the condition that the artifacts must be returned to the museum”. However, the items are determined as property of both the museum and the state, he said. “We proceed from the fact that museum property is primary and more fundamental than the property of the state,” Malgin told Al Jazeera.
Those contracts with the museums are the basis to determine where the gold has to be returned, said Inge van der Vlies, a professor of constitutional law and art at the University of Amsterdam. The Netherlands has not recognised Crimea’s secession. Therefore, it still has to fulfill its obligations vis-a-vis Ukraine.
Museums on both sides have hired lawyers to solve the problem, and the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs is involved. Meanwhile, Russia, too, has declared its support for Crimea and hired an international law firm. “I am very hopeful that our counterparts in the Netherlands will approach the matter from the viewpoint not of petty politics but that of the law,” said Russian culture minister Vladimir Medinsky, according to media reports in July. He accused Kiev of shifting the issue into the political domain.
The ancient gold, coins and caskets from the Black Sea have become just the most recent delicate matter in what has become a “cold conflict” between Russia, Ukraine and the West. Especially for the Netherlands the dispute over the cultural heritage complicates relations with Russia.
Last year Russia jailed four Dutch citizens under a controversial anti-homosexuality bill accusing them of spreading “gay propaganda”. Just a few months later the Dutch police arrested a high-ranking Russian diplomat in The Hague on suspicion of child abuse. A few days later, a Dutch diplomat was beaten up in Moscow.
Deteriorating Russian-Dutch relations
More importantly, the dispute over the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise has worsened the Russian-Dutch relationship. One year ago, Russian authorities arrested activists and crew members of the ship flying under the Dutch flag. During a protest at an oil platform they were caught and later charged with piracy. Thirty people were detained for more than 100 days. Just a few weeks ago the ship arrived in the harbour in Amsterdam.
The recent downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 has again increased tensions with Moscow. The majority of the victims, 195 people, were Dutch. In the eyes of many Dutch, Russia is to blame for the disaster.
“There is a strong anti-Russian sentiment in Holland,” said Nicolaas Kraft van Ermel, a researcher at the Netherlands-Russia Center at the University of Groningen, speaking of the consequences of MH17 a few weeks ago. For example, in a radio interview, a Dutch city mayor called for the deportation of Maria Putin, the Russian president’s daughter, who reportedly lived in an apartment in The Hague. The mayor later apologised for his comment, but “this shows the feelings vis-a-vis Russia quite good”, Kraft van Ermel said.
There seems to be no link between the incidents. However, they all point to the fact that relations with Russia are more complicated, tense and overloaded with emotions and negative perceptions than ties with other countries.
This complicates matters in the dispute over the Crimean gold. It is not only about the artifacts, nor is it only a legal matter. In light of the previous incidents and because of the recent developments in relations between Russia and the Netherlands, it has become a politicised issue.
The question where to return the artifacts was raised earlier this year already. The exhibition was initially scheduled to close in May. Back then the Amsterdam museum just said it extended the time of the exhibition. The final closing date has been set for August 31.
Follow Benjamin Durr on Twitter: @benjaminduerr