Alex Van Meeuwen, Ambassadeur van Belgie in Moskou

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Interview by John Harrison

How many expats are there in Moscow, and what sort of activities are they engaged in?

Moscow counts about 500 Belgian residents. A large majority of them work for private companies, Belgian, Russian or international companies, and in different sectors (banking, services, retail, etc.). Some Belgian citizens work in Moscow in the cultural or educational field. Each year about 10 Belgian students register at one of the Moscow universities, either for a MBA or to study Russian. In spite of the crisis, the number of Belgian expats visiting or staying in Russia did not seem to fall. We even observed a slight increase since last year.

What are the main differences in business etiquette between Russian and Belgian business practices?

First of all, I would like to stress that the Belgian business community was and remains very happy to be present in Russia and on the Russian market. Between the financial crisis of 2008/2009 and the current crisis, our businesses here were flourishing and expanded each year. During that period, many businessmen realized the huge potential of this country. However, we need to recognize that the current crisis severely affects everyone. These days our Belgian Russian Business Club and our Chamber of Commerce are frequently consulted and their events numerously attended, as businessmen more than ever feel the need to share experiences and analyses of the political and economic situation.

I strongly believe that after the crisis, European companies will be able to regain their market shares on the Russian market. One important characteristic of the Russian business mentality is loyalty towards business partners, once confidence is settled. This is one of the elements which gives me hope for the future.

What are the key aspects of Russian culture that you would like Belgian people to know about?

I have the impression that many Belgians have some difficulties understanding Russia and its citizens. In my view, in order to understand Russia, one should read into its long and fascinating history, get acquainted with its geographical but also cultural position between the East and the West, and try to pay a visit to Moscow or Saint Petersburg in order to get a feel of the grandeur of its cities. Many Belgians and Russians share an interest for spending time with family, travelling abroad, and sharing a good meal with friends.

What is it like living and working in Moscow at the moment?

Although recently Europe and Russia have met some important challenges, every day work for a foreign diplomat in Moscow is about finding common ground and fostering people-to-people contacts in all possible areas. We at the Embassy are constantly on the look for new opportunities, which also requires a serious effort to familiarize with the Russian language. Moscow is a huge, vibrant city to live in. It offers possibilities to meet Russians from all corners of the Russian Federation and from around the world, and invites to interact in many ways. Anyone living here is constantly reminded of the historical and cultural legacy of this country, which is also an interesting source of discussion about the future. My hope and understanding is that this may be a common future with Europe.