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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New German Ambassador Takes on the Press

MTVon Ploetz said he would like to make his presence felt in the Russian media.
Diplomats are often shy of the limelight, and nowhere have they more reason to be so than in Britain, where the tabloid newspapers have sunk the career of more than one highflier.

But Berlin's new top man in Moscow, Hans-Friedrich von Ploetz, not only survived his recent three-year tenure as German ambassador to London with his reputation intact, but did so after granting more than 1,000 interviews to the press. He even earned himself a reputation for having a sense of humor.

"I sometimes started an interview by saying 'We shouldn't mention the war, the football or the euro, so shall we talk about the weather?'" he said in a recent interview.

Although 62-year-old von Ploetz admitted that his Russian was not yet up to the standard of his English, he said he hoped to make his presence felt in the Russian media, just as he did in Britain.

He has formed some early impressions of the society he lives in, noting a profound change in Muscovites, especially culturally, since Russia opened up to the world after the Soviet era.

"What used to be very visible lines between Russian and non-Russian seems to have almost disappeared," said von Ploetz, who took over as ambassador in July.

A career diplomat, von Ploetz leads the largest Western business community in Moscow -- almost 3,000 German firms operate in the capital -- and represents Russia's No. 1 trading partner.

Trade turnover between Germany and Russia grew 16 percent last year to hit 24.8 billion euros ($24.5 billion), with German exports to Russia rising by 54 percent to a record 10.3 billion euros, according to the German Statistics Office.

Von Ploetz said German-Russian relations have never been stronger and exist on many levels -- not least in the cultural sphere. He gave a demonstration of this himself when he read a few lines from Goethe's "Faust" at Russian theater director Yury Lyubimov's 85th birthday celebration at the Taganka Theater last month.

Von Ploetz said his career in international affairs was influenced early on by having an English grandmother.

"It affected my life considerably," he said in his elegant English accent. "England and speaking English and looking across the border came absolutely naturally, and I went to England first at age 17 and fell in love, literally, from then on." Von Ploetz said he recently gave a dinner party to mark the 60th birthday of the English girlfriend he met on that first visit in the late 1950s.

"All my friends from those days were there and we had a great time," he said.

Von Ploetz went on to study law in Marburg, Berlin and Vienna and graduated with a law doctorate in 1967, a year after he joined the West German Foreign Ministry. He served in Helsinki and Washington as well as holding important posts in Bonn before embarking on his spell as ambassador to Britain in 1999.

Rather than "Don't mention the war" -- a slogan from the British television comedy "Fawlty Towers" -- von Ploetz suggested that a more contemporary view of British-German relations could be "Don't mention the score," a headline that appeared in British tabloid The Sun after the England soccer team beat Germany 5-1 last year.

Columnist Hella Pick, writing in the Die Welt newspaper in March after the announcement of von Ploetz's appointment to Moscow, said the ambassador had launched something of a revolution in diplomacy in Britain, putting "public diplomacy" on the same footing as traditional behind-the-scenes maneuvering.

She wrote that as well as speaking frequently through the media, von Ploetz communicated with city governments, schools and universities and worked to promote the European cause and the benefits of being multilingual -- often appearing with the French ambassador to Britain to advance these issues.

"Moscow will be a challenge, and von Ploetz has shown that challenges are the elixir of life for him," Pick wrote.

Although von Ploetz has never lived in this country before, he has traveled in Russia frequently in Soviet and post-Soviet times and has plenty of experience of Russia-related affairs.

From 1980 to 1985, he worked in the office of West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and frequently met with veteran Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.

"I remember the last conversation with him as foreign minister in March 1985," von Ploetz said. "Genscher explained to Gromyko that the industrial democracies were about to enter a new age that he called the information age. When Genscher finished, Gromyko said: 'Are you telling me, Mr. Genscher, that in this new world of yours there won't be working masses in the factories?'"

Von Ploetz said that although Gromyko didn't say as much, what he was really asking was whether Genscher meant the Soviet system would be losing its power base -- a thought von Ploetz considers astute.

Later, von Ploetz represented Germany on the NATO council in Brussels and was deeply involved in European integration, experiences that have led him to call for international relations based on multilateral rather than bilateral ties.

He referred to a December 1997 Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Russia and the European Union as one of the paths to future prosperity that could also facilitate Russian entry to the World Trade Organization.

Further in the future, he said, lies the creation of a common economic space, incorporating Russia and the EU, which would offer free movement of people, goods, services and capital. This was adopted as a goal of the EU in 1999, von Ploetz said.

Von Ploetz said the expansion of the EU around the Kaliningrad region and the threat of international terrorism created new and complex challenges for Russia and the EU that would require sophisticated responses.

"Saying that those who are not with us are against us is too simplistic," he said.