Ambassador OâLeary arrived in Moscow in the autumn of 2013and has firmly established himself within the Irish Community with his welcoming and supporting attitude. In this interview, Ambassador OâLeary talks about his activities here, cultural issues and Moscow.
How many Irish expats are there in Moscow?
There are about 400 Irish citizens living in Moscow, and about 700 in Russia. The numbers vary quite significantly because we have a lot of short-term employees, particularly teachers. We have a well established and well organised Irish community including an Irish Business Club chaired by Avril Conroy. Avril was honoured by our President this year, when she received a Distinguished Service Award for her work with the Irish community in Russia. In the last year, the Irish Community in Moscow have established a Gaelic Football club, the Moscow Shamrocks.
What are your main activities as Ambassador here?
There are a number of activities that I undertake as Ambassador. One is to represent Ireland to the Russian government, which involves quite an amount of bilateral work and close cooperation with the delegation of the European Union and my EU colleagues. Despite the current tensions, Ireland and Russia continue to build their bilateral relationship. The Joint Economic Commission is active and met in April. We had a visit of the Irish trade, scientific research and investment promotion agencies in November. Our trade has grown significantly over the last decade and, of course, the cultural links continue to strengthen.
We have extensive cultural contacts; of which the most important are the annual St. Patricks Day Parade, which is organised by the Irish Business Club, and the Irish Week of events, which includes a film festival, music, comedy and many other events. This year, in the region of fifteen thousand attended the Saint Patrickâs Day parade.
Like every Embassy in Moscow, we have our consular and visa work. Thankfully, the consular work is not very difficult. The visa office in the Embassy issues about 17,000 visas a year. In recent years we have made it easier to get an Irish multi entry visa and we have also allowed the holders of most British visas to come to Ireland without a visa. This means that if you are Russian and have a British tourist or business visa and have used it in Britain once, you can come to Ireland without getting a separate Irish visa. We intend to introduce a joint visa system with Britain this year.
I am also the Ambassador of Ireland to the five Central Asian republics which were part of the Soviet Union.
Of course, as Ambassador, I am expected to keep my authorities informed of political and economic developments in Russia. Needless to say, this aspect has carried a heavy workload in the past year.
The Embassy is very much an âIreland Houseâ with diplomats, Irish and Russian support staff, an agricultural attachÃ©, Irish and Russian staff in the Visa office and Enterprise Ireland, and Industrial Development Authority offices. We also have an Irish Food Agency office not far from the Embassy. Ireland also has Honorary Consuls in Saint Petersburg and in Almaty in Kazakhstan.
Apart from all of these activities, there is a big social element. We have concerts and many different cultural events in the Embassy, which is the nicest part of the job. We had a childrenâs Christmas party for example, for the local Irish community. And, of course, the Embassy is also home for myself and Anne.
What are the main differences between Ireland and Russia in terms of administration?
The main difference is size and complexity The Irish system is small and more informal. That being said, our relations with the State and city authorities are excellent and we have found the interaction with businesses, contractors and landlords to be very good.
We find Russians very warm people once you get to know them and very helpful. They are rightly proud of their culture and language and greatly appreciate it when you show an interest in both of them. There are a lot of misconceptions about Moscow, particularly since the start of the current difficulties. People have an idea of Moscow that comes from a James Bond movie. In fact, Moscow is a very nice city, and Russia is a very nice place to travel, and live, in. Security concerns are equal or less than in most other cities in Europe. Public transport is excellent; restaurants are keenly priced. I would like to see Russia encourage the tourist industry, which would involve a more flexible visa regime, because the country has a wonderful range of attractions for the tourist. Iâve visited Nizhny Novgorod, Yaroslavl, Vladimir, St. Petersburg, Bryansk, Ufa, and a couple of Central Asian countries. Tourism in Russia has amazing potential and is something that needs to be encouraged.
What are the main cultural differences between Russia and Ireland?
Well people are a bit more reticent; they smile less than in Ireland. But then Ireland, by any standards, is a pretty smiley place. I find Russia and Austria quite similar actually. We lived in Austria for 6 years. It takes a little time to break the ice, but once you do, you find that people in Russia are quite similar to Irish. We have very similar cultural interests, and a very similar European cultural background.
What do you personally think about Moscow?
We like Moscow, and we liked it from the day we arrived for a number of reasons. We love the Irish community, and have made some good friends here, and we have also made some good Russian friends. The diplomatic community here is very nice, and the city itself is full of treasures and wonders; every weekend we try to find a new one. We finally got to Tsaritsyno a few weeks ago, which was wonderful. Musical and cultural events in Moscow are of a very high standard. We have been to the opera and the ballet many times. We were recently invited to watch the first full performance of âWaiting for Godotâ in Russian, in a small theatre with 200 people near MKAD, and it was fabulous. This was a really good interpretation. So we really like Moscow and Russia, and I look forward to living here for a few more years.