Opportunities And Optimism

For MT
This man is an optimist: Michael Harms, the head of the German business delegation in Russia, is putting much trust in Russia's economic future.

"The mood is very, very good," he said in a recent interview in his office in the south of the city center. As the main reason, he identified high growth rates: "In the last two years, everything simply exploded," he said.

While weak institutions and rampant bureaucracy still pose challenges, he said, constant improvements regarding the rule of law represent a positive trend. "Legal procedures are working, you can actually enforce your claims in the courts and firms have been winning legal battles against tax authorities," he said.

And he identified the country's largest economic drawback as an opportunity: "Infrastructure poses a massive challenge ... and this might offer opportunities to the German construction industry."

One might say it is Harms' job to be optimistic, as he is the main political lobbyist for Europe's biggest economy and Russia's biggest trade partner. And his profile is set to rise after Dec. 14, when the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce Abroad is to be founded. Harms is designated to be elected the chamber's CEO next spring. His organization currently has more than 500 member firms, of which 30 are Russian.

Harms, who is 43 and the father of two children, was born in Monino, in the Moscow region, where his father, an East German officer, was studying at the Soviet Air Force Academy.

Although his mother is Russian, Harms said he does not like it when people say he has a special relationship with Russia, because his parents moved to Dresden when he was a few months old.

He did move to Moscow, however, in 1985 to study international relations and Iranian studies. He returned to Germany in 1991 and two years later got a degree in political science from Berlin's Humboldt University.


Grigory Tambulov / For MT
Harms is to become CEO of the German-Russian Chamber of Commerce Abroad.
He has experience in dealing with the difficulties of economies in transition. Before coming to Moscow this summer, for seven years he was an executive in the influential Ost-Ausschuss of Germany's business associations, the industry committee for Eastern Europe. From 2001 to 2003, he also served as executive secretary of the Balkan Stability Pact's Business Advisory Council in Brussels.

"He has extensive experience in the country and knows both the German and the Russian system very well," said Regina von Flemming, CEO for the publishing house Axel Springer Russia. She added that Harms was both competent and kind and that he had very good social skills. "He is the right man for the right job," she said.

As a business lobbyist, Harms believes that politics in this country currently has far too much relevance. "The ultimate goal must be that it is utterly irrelevant who is prime minister: If businesses need not bother to know his name -- that would be ideal," he said.

But he was adamant that the ongoing volatility was not disquieting business.

"I do not sense any anxiety among our members. The prospect that [President Vladimir] Putin is going to stay in the political system has rather reassured our firms," Harms said.

He brushed off questions about corruption, saying it was more a problem for domestic firms than for foreign investors.

"A professional entrepreneur usually decides not to pay a penny, even if that makes him wait for a whole year," he said.

Ultimately, Harms admitted that his role as an ambassador for German business was aided greatly by his country's image here.

"German investors are seen as reliable, honest and interested in long-term relationships with the best know-how," he said.