Interview with Ambassador of the Netherlands in Russia, Jan-Paul Dirkse
- Mar. 16 2010 00:00
While president, current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin built strong relationships but also faced challenges with Dutch political and business leaders. The new head of the Russian state, President Dmitry Medvedev, has a different style than Putin; how have things changed with regard to Dutch-Russian relations after a year with Mr. Medvedev at the helm?
Things haven't changed that much. The relations between the Russian Federation and the Netherlands are excellent at the moment, and, like our prime minister has said, relations are so good that even controversial issues can be addressed, and I think that this is something that is very important; that among friends, like-minded people, you can talk even about issues on which you differ. Regarding the new president, some changes are visible maybe as far as style is concerned, but not so much in terms of content. Prime Minister Putin did have quite a strong relationship with our present prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende — they met often, and they have a kind of personal relationship that goes beyond the basic, official ties. For Mr. Medvedev, it will be his first trip to the Netherlands as president in June, but the president has met with Dutch government officials before. I do know that the president and our prime minister have talked over the phone one or two times, and these were, as far as I have been informed, very successful talks. They also sat next to each other at the London G20 summit.
What do you expect will be on the agenda when the Russian president meets with Dutch leaders for the first time in Amsterdam this June?
There's always a long list of issues whenever heads of state or government meet, and this ranges from piracy in Somalian waters to what is going to happen to the successor of START I. There are a few documents to be signed: a treaty on road transport that has been under discussion for quite a long time now and also a memorandum of understanding on bilateral cultural cooperation, focusing on declaring the year 2013 as the year of Russian-Dutch culture.
One of the interesting aspects of Dutch-Russian relations is that there are no real bilateral political issues, which is, on the one hand, because of the excellent relations, and, on the other, because many — mainly economic — sectors are dealt with between the Russian Federation and the European Union as a whole rather than between Russia and each individual EU member state. But having such close economic relations will mean that heads of state and government and individual ministers will discuss quite a lot of technical issues in the fields of trade, investment and agriculture.
Her Majesty the Queen will receive President Medvedev before the official opening of the Hermitage and they will attend the opening together. This symbolizes the close historical links between our countries: There is some Russian blood in our royal family — one of our kings in the 19th century was married to a Russian princess — so the royal family has a strong interest in Russia.
Both the Netherlands and Russia have been hit hard by the global financial crisis. What forms of economic and other cooperation can help them recover together?
I think that among the most important issues is that, as far as is possible, we try to avoid protectionism. Of course, that begs the question: What is protectionism? The Netherlands and Russia have a somewhat differing position; Russia is a major exporter of raw materials — energy and metals. Apart from that, it has a major industrial sector. The Netherlands are stronger in trade and services. You can argue that it's in a country's interest to have its own automotive industry, its own shipbuilding industry, etc. The Russian prime minister has indicated that they have to support the Russian automotive industry, but some people are saying that maybe it's not such a good idea to protect it. You find the same discussion in Western Europe. The same goes in the Netherlands for our banking sector. We are the sixth financial market worldwide. It is tempting to take decisions only on a national basis, and our government has taken expensive, important and painful decisions. I think that all over the world, not just in the Netherlands and the Russian Federation, but everywhere, we have to strike a balance between short term socio-political objectives and longer term socio-economic interests. We will have to figure out how to keep as many jobs as possible without ruining the economic system, positively said: saving jobs and improving the economy structurally.
One area in which Russia and Europe have been divided is the continued existence and expansion of NATO. How do you envision relations between NATO and Russia evolving in the future, and what role do you see the Netherlands having in the development of that relationship?
For the Netherlands, NATO is a very important organization. NATO membership and EU membership are pillars of Dutch foreign policy — that was the case during the Cold War, and it is the case nowadays as well. In terms of the alliance's relationship with Russia, I would say that it's such a pity that the Russian Federation did not join NATO in the 1990s. And I know — I'm not only confident, but I know — that there is no way in which NATO would be interested in reviving the Cold War. We have a different mission now, guaranteeing world peace in a more surgical way, exemplified in Afghanistan: fighting terrorism and bringing the country forward. But when you look at the way in which Russia and Russian politicians view NATO, I'm not that surprised that the predominant view is one of suspicion. For the average politician in Russia, having thought of one side as the enemy for 40 years, it's rather hard to think one day, "Oh — these are our friends." It takes a change in mindset. I think that that is one of the things that will shift when the change of guards takes place and younger people who are not as influenced by what happened during the Cold War take over. As a representative of that older generation, I welcome the leaders of the next generation — Obama and Medvedev — who can be regarded as post-Cold War leaders. They can turn pages and open chapters more easily and free us from distortions and mistrust.
International companies doing business in Russia, including some from the Netherlands, have faced their fair share of challenges navigating the complex Russian business and regulatory environment. In your opinion, how can these challenges best be overcome and the incentive for international companies to invest in Russia be strengthened further?
One of my colleagues once said, "As long as all the elements of Mendeleev's table are in the Russian soil, air or water, foreign business will always be interested in the Russian Federation" — that is part of the incentive. The other side of the issue is that it's not always that easy to do business in Russia — but things do change. Then, and this is something that President Medvedev has said as well, the rule of law is something that is of utmost importance for the government to have a look at and to see whether this can be improved. You might say that this is something that takes time — it's not going to happen overnight — but it needs attention from all governments, and it definitely will be on the agenda between the Russian President and the Dutch Prime Minister.
What is the recipe to do successful business in Russia? I would say that it is not much different than in many other countries in the world: You have to know your way around; you have to have friends; you have to have good local partners. If, as a businessman, you decide to do business with shaky local partners, then you should not be surprised that your venture is shaky. Russia is regarded as a high-risk but also a high-profit market. It is a young market from the global perspective; you might say somewhat immature and volatile. Sound business people know that when entering, and they keep that in mind. It is the government's responsibility to overcome immaturity and correct deficiencies. It is a learning process for both the government and those in the private sphere.
Despite the challenges sometimes faced here in Russia, Dutch businesses have in many ways gone full speed ahead in terms of seeking new opportunities. Please talk about the sectors of the Russian economy that you believe Dutch companies can make the most significant contribution to now and in the future.
It's always interesting to mention that the Netherlands is one of the biggest investors in Russia, and trade figures also indicate that the Netherlands is the second-biggest trade partner for Russia — the total amount of Russian-Dutch trade is very large: 18.5 billion euros in 2008. Oil and gas, agriculture and logistics are areas in which there are especially many opportunities in Russia that Dutch businesses can grasp. If the Yamal venture materializes, and if Sakhalin-3 materializes, these would be huge opportunities for Dutch companies. If you look at agriculture, you see all kinds of ventures. In the last couple of years, more than 40,000 cows were exported from the Netherlands to the Russian Federation. Practically all the flowers sold to the Russian Federation are grown or auctioned in the Netherlands. If you go to a flower shop even on Sakhalin, you will find roses that were grown in the Netherlands. There is a booming trade and transit of goods between St. Petersburg and Rotterdam harbor.
'Diplomacy is not only about state visits — it's also about communication between ordinary people.'
Sustainable energy is also a priority issue of our Ministry of Economic Affairs — although it must be said that, energy being so abundantly available in Russia, it is still very hard to convey the message that sustainable energy and energy conservation are vital. But to underline that message: You know we still are a major producer of natural gas, but did you know that on an annual basis as much energy is lost in Russia by spilling as is produced in the Netherlands?
During his June visit to the Netherlands, President Medvedev will take part in the grand opening of the new Hermitage-Amsterdam museum, a much-celebrated bilateral cultural project for the two countries. Please talk about the role of the project in strengthening ties, and about the importance of cultural projects in increasing international cooperation in general.
Culture is a very important field of cooperation. Diplomacy is not only about state visits of presidents and prime ministers or about memoranda of understanding and treaties — it's also about communication between ordinary people or between professionals. If you have painters or ballet dancers from different countries meet, than it's a kind of understanding that we officials and diplomats can proclaim in memoranda of understanding, but it's the people who have to do it. One great aspect of the upcoming visit of President Medvedev is that it gives an impetus to quite a few of these kinds of contacts. It's not only a contact between Hermitage director Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky and the director of the new Hermitage-Amsterdam museum
Mr. Ernst Veen — it's also between curators, and ordinary Dutchmen seeing what is available in Russia.