Bilateral Year Confirms Broad and Strong Relations

Max Avdeev

You have been in Moscow since August 2013 as Ambassador of the Kingdom of The Netherlands. What are your impressions of Russia so far?

I drove by car from my previous posting, Vienna, to Moscow and I had the feeling of being on my way to a new challenge. I've been interested in Russian literature and music for years — Boris Grebenshikov is one of the Russian singers on my playlist. Now the time has come to experience Russian society from within. In just a couple of weeks I participated, with my wife Brigitte, in many activities as part of the bilateral year, such as the Dutch Days of Culture, including the opening of the Mondrian exhibition and the Holland Village. Two trade exhibitions, the Neva maritime fair and most recently, the Golden Autumn agricultural fair were fascinating. Despite recent challenging issues that we have been facing in the relationship with Russia, I noticed that Russians have a positive and warm perception of our country. I experienced this first hand on Red Square, where a woman tapped me on the shoulder and said what a nice country The Netherlands is. I'm confident that after the bilateral year positive impressions will prevail and both countries will have fruitful contacts and build upon our existing cooperation.

The bilateral Russian-Dutch year is drawing to a close. What is its legacy?

We noticed lots of interest in the more than 600 activities which have been organized so far, from cultural events to close cooperation on legal matters. From the start we focused on sustainable activities that could be prolonged over the years to come. We've already seen results, such as the contracts signed at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum and the fact that performances by Dutch theaters at the Gavroche Festival of children's theatre were all sold out. It's great to see so many private organizations support Russian-Dutch collaboration. Artists like DJ Tiësto have hosted shows in Moscow, simply because the two countries have a dance music scene. In this respect, it is impressive to see how broad and strong are the ties between our two countries.

The Netherlands has been regarded as a progressive and tolerant country, in which people can follow their own values and  be consulted. Perhaps it can be summarized as freedom with self-responsibility. In what way does The Netherlands promote this view of civil society?

The Netherlands is a multicultural and open society based on the idea that everyone can play his or her role. This is also reflected in the political system where a large number of parties in parliament represent the Dutch citizens. Equality and just representation can also be found in our foreign policy. The EU-Russia Civil Society Forum which took place in The Hague in the beginning of October is a good example of how we try to facilitate initiatives that aim at creating mutual understanding.

Amsterdam has of all cities in the world the highest number of different nationalities. In the largest cities in The Netherlands about 25 percent of the population has a migrant background. Our country is adapting to this new reality and this takes time and energy, both from the Dutch people and from the government. Dutch society needs continuing "maintenance". When our King read his first speech from the throne he mentioned that we are going to be a "participation society". If you support the idea that everyone should participate in society, people are also expected to take responsibility for their own education, learn the language and get a job.  

Some say the polder model of building consensus is under pressure. Political parties and the church are not held in the same esteem as before, though human rights organizations rate very highly, especially among young adults. How would you explain to a Russian the way in which Dutch society is evolving?

The famous Dutch historian Geert Mak wrote a highly appreciated book at the end of the previous century which is called, My Father's Century. We've seen big changes in our country, such as a shift from a "compartmentalized society", in which politics, education and culture were divided along traditional lines, to a more inclusive society, where background matters less. The role of the Church as a moral institution has weakened due to widespread secularization. Yet, some elements remain the same. The idea of reaching consensus on important issues is in the genes of the Dutch.  Although this model needs more time for decision making, it ensures that everyone feels heard in the political process and power remains shared. Other traditions play an important role. We're still proud of our fine arts (currently on display in the Pushkin museum) and we're still known abroad for our cheese, tulips and windmills. The Holland Village in VDNKh park is proof that these things are also valued in Russia. The organizers were impressed by the fact that in Moscow our Holland Village received five times more visitors compared to other cities worldwide.

One way in which Russians and Dutch people can come together more often is through a softening of the visa regime. Do you see any signs that rules will be resolved so that ordinary Europeans can visit Russia cheaply and easily?

By traveling we learn a lot about each other's background. Seeing other cultures and peoples opens the mind and makes you a free person. Almost two percent of foreign students in The Netherlands come from Russia, that is almost as much as from Germany (three percent). Naturally, we try to improve this number, for example by offering an increasing number of English programs. At this moment, we rank first in Europe concerning the number of English master programs. We would be glad to see even more Russians coming to our country for study. I see that both sides are trying to optimize visa facilitation. This year the consular department of our Embassy in Moscow will issue approximately 65,000 visas, an all-time record. The average waiting time is four days. We will soon be working with intake centers operational all over Russia where visa application can be done. The refusal rate remains less than 1 percent. I think I can safely state that whoever wants to travel to the Netherlands for the right reasons can actually do so. This having said, visa freedom remains the final goal for both the EU and Russia.

The Netherlands hosts global institutions like the International Court of Justice and war crimes tribunals. It's also the headquarters of Europol and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. How did this come to be — and why this focus on crime and the conduct of war?

First of all, we owe this reputation partly to Russian tsar Nicholas II, who took the initiative for the first Peace Conference in The Hague in 1899. At this occasion, it was decided to build the Peace Palace, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. Since then, a snowball effect has given way to the establishment of more than 150 institutions in The Hague which work in the field of peace and justice. From this perspective, it has been quite a success story, now having the OPCW being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. We're proud to host such excellent institutions.

Cooperation between Russia and The Netherlands in the field of rule of law is very strong. Matters of civil reform and civil code, procedural law code, prison reform and forensic expertise, are all examples. Combatting cybercrime is an area in which Russia and The Netherlands work closely. Finally, Dutch justice minister Ivo Opstelten attended the St. Petersburg Legal Forum last May, where he discussed further bilateral cooperation in the field of justice with his Russian counterpart.

Russia has been part of the World Trade Organization for more than a year. From the point of view of Dutch businesses, which industries are gaining most?

The work of the WTO is important for further economic integration. More than half of total Russian trade is with the EU and we might see a further increase in the future. Already our countries are very close partners. More than 20 billion euros of imports flow into The Netherlands each year, of which the energy sector takes on the largest chunk. On the other hand, Dutch exports to Russia amount to more than 7 billion euros, mainly in the maritime industry and infrastructure, but also healthcare, agrifood and architecture. Companies such as Shell, Heineken, FrieslandCampina and Unilever invest strongly in Russia. The Netherlands ranks among the three largest foreign investors in Russia. This is testimony to an excellent commercial relationship that exists between our two countries.

What barriers to trade could still be removed and what could be done to increase the ease of doing business?

What I hear from Dutch companies is that they continuously see new possibilities to expand their activities in Russia. Having said this, especially for entrants in the Russian market, it's necessary to be well prepared when doing business in Russia. Personal relations are more important than in The Netherlands. The Russian government has indicated that it wants to rank among the top 20 countries in the 'Doing Business list' of the World Bank. I fully support this goal because it's in the interest of both Russian and international companies. At the same time, I think it's fair to say that in Russia the main stumbling block for companies entering the Russian market is the ease of doing business. For example, Dutch companies sometimes face problems importing products into Russia.

The Netherlands is famous for its logistics and distribution companies, which benefit from the country's location next to the three largest economies in Europe. Russia also has the potential to become a hub between Asia and Europe. How can both countries develop this together?

Dutch companies are heavily involved in developing Russian potential. This is happening not just in Russia itself, but also through investments in the Port of Rotterdam, for example, which is the largest in Europe. Logistics is a strong sector because it is integrated in the Dutch economy, with strong ties to infrastructure, planning and the environment. Transportation in Russia is difficult to compare due to the sheer difference in country size. Yet The Netherlands ranks among the most efficient logistics hubs in the world. Flowers are handled at a dazzling speed from supplier to buyer. So I do think that Russia could benefit from our expertise. Besides, the energy sector is a visible commercial asset of both countries. As The Netherlands plans to reinforce its position as a 'gas roundabout', companies such as Gazprom and Summa Group are very much willing to do business with Dutch companies.

I would like to ask about The Netherlands' economic experience over the past half century. The discovery of natural gas deposits in the 1950s and 60s, led to the concept of 'Dutch Disease' — in which the booming energy sector pushed up the exchange rate and caused manufacturing to decline. How did The Netherlands boost the competitiveness of the manufacturing sector — and can Russia do likewise?

The phenomenon which has come to be known as the 'Dutch Disease' is something we have learnt from. It is an example that Russia should try to avoid. In addition to a steeply rising exchange rate, the gas benefits were not invested wisely. What were needed were longterm investments in infrastructure and diversification of the economy. The impact of this phenomenon was not known yet at that time and now I think that countries such as Norway, but also Russia, have already learnt from our experience by creating a national fund for future investment. We learnt the hard way: the right way is to invest it wisely and at the same time diversify the economy.

Several decades later, I think we can safely say that we have a diversified economy, with many strong sectors, which is even more important since our natural gas sources will be depleted around 2025.

There are projects to diversify and modernize the Russian economy, through bodies like the Skolkovo Institute and the nearby technology cluster. What can broaden the range of joint activities?

It's most of all a matter for the free market. However, governments can play an important role in connecting the right organizations for partnerships, such as knowledge institutions, companies and government parties. For example, our Embassy in Moscow and the Consulate General in St. Petersburg organize several trade missions to Russian cities, where we try to do match-making between businesses. Together we can surely help to kick-start new research and partnerships. I recognize the focus on modernizing the Russian economy and I think that when Skolkovo continues to improve its business environment, more Dutch companies will be interested to partner up with this excellent initiative.

Planning and construction for sports events will be a big focus over the next four years. After the Sochi Olympics comes the FIFA World Cup. How are Dutch companies involved?

Companies no longer work on a strictly individual basis, but often in consortia. Dutch businesses investing in Sochi provide a diversified package, includng stadium and crowd management, lighting and high-tech and hard infrastructure. Around 12 Dutch companies will be present during the November mission.

No matter what partnerships will be concluded in the next months, we hope to play the final against Russia. As our Prime-Minister said, joking: 'We were disappointed to lose the bid for organizing WC 2018 to Russia but it can be made up by giving us a share in the development of stadiums and infrastructure'.

In November King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima will visit Russia to mark the closure of the Russian-Dutch year, repaying the visit of President Vladimir Putin to The Netherlands several months ago. What events will be held in Russia to celebrate the visit?

The visit of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima in November  marks the official closing of the bilateral year. President Putin's visit to The Netherlands in April was in that sense the kick-off of a long string of activities concentrated on economic, cultural and civil society cooperation. A performance of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) is, I think, the perfect way to close such a year. This top orchestra currently enjoys the highest international rating and Queen Máxima is its patroness. The RCO will give performances both in St. Petersburg and Moscow. Did you know that although the RCO is a Dutch ensemble, more than 60 nationalities are represented? This initiative that arises in the context of a creative and diverse society, is a good example of friendship based on common interests. I'm confident that The Netherlands and Russia will proceed on a similar basis in the years to come!

Russia - Holland 2013
Russia - Holland 2013
The Moscow Times is releasing its new "Russia - The Netherlands 2013" supplement, dedicated to economic and cultural cooperation between the two nations. The current edition is published in partnership with the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
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