Duncan Cole – Senior Trade Commissioner, Australian Trade Commission (Austrade), Moscow

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Roughly how many Australians are there here?

My work here mainly focuses on the business side, so I can’t tell you how many individuals there are, but I can give you an idea of how many companies there are. There are 20 to 25 companies that have a representative office here on the ground, with a resident Australian living and working here. This is not a huge number. But we do have a large number of Australian companies doing business here in Russia, many of which have Russian partners. Russia is not in the same league for Australia in terms of trading as China and Japan are for example, but it is an extremely important trading partner for particular sectors. Which sectors? Mining and education are the most important sectors for us here in Russia. We also have very large involvements in the agribusiness sector, which means anything from supplying advisors for farming operations to food production. Australia accounts for about 70% of the mining software used throughout the world. Many large Australian IT companies are now here in the market and run by an Australian expat or by a Russian manager who works full-time for an Australian company. There are also many consultants who are coming through, and offering advice to Russian companies. We help Russian companies become aware of what Australian companies have to offer. We are lucky in that most Russian mining companies are familiar with Australian products; they may know about Australian design for open pits and process flows, but they may not know that Australia has some of the best safety training in the world for mining operations.

How can Australia companies get to hear about opportunities in Russia?

They can come to us, the Australian trade Commission. It is clear from our name that we are promoting trade. Many people, however, do not know that we also have a special education department to ensure that Australian education providers are aware of the opportunities available on the Russian market. We also advise them how they can market into this particular part of the world. The third area we look after is investment to make sure that Russians are aware of the investment opportunities from Russia into Australia. Companies like Rusal are investing into Australia, so we have some investment activity going on. The fourth area that we look after is tourism, and that primarily concerns investment into tourist infrastructure in Australia.

Many countries outsource some of the activities that you have mentioned to Chambers of commerce and other organizations, but you have chosen to keep this in-house one why?

We work very closely with the Australian Russian Chamber of Commerce and the Business Association here, but the reality of the situation is that they are both very small, so on many occasions they do not have the necessary resources. Many modern Australian companies that are coming in here need information: should I do it this way or should I do it another way. But we’re not specialists on Russian legislation, or Russian tax rules. If any companies need such advice we say to them that there are a number of specialists advisory firms here better placed to be able to help them in that area. We have a wider range of areas, which we cover from here in Moscow and I work out of a second office in Vladivostok, which covers the Far East.

Is the fact that the fees are going up in the UK for foreign students a good thing for your education providers?

It is all about growing the pie in general. I work very closely with the education departments in other embassies here in Moscow. If we look at the market and say that if you come to us you’ll get a better deal, you are missing the point, because what we should be saying is that education abroad is a good thing in general, thus the pie grows for everybody, and each player’s slice of the pie is greater. We have had huge fluctuation with the Australian dollar, so we have also had changes in the real cost of fees. The mining sector is another example. If we grow the whole market, we know that Australia will get a percentage of it. Therefore, for education, one could advise a student to do his undergraduate degree in one country and his postgraduate in another, or the other way round.

How is business being affected by the sanctions?

This is something we are very conscious about. We are very clear that there are certain areas that we cannot operate in, and we advise accordingly. Certain products such as those in the communication business can be dual usage, so we have to make sure that Australian companies make sure that they check what the products are going to be used for. However, that doesn’t mean that we still can’t maintain relationships with those companies. What we are seeing is that yes, there has been a clear fall off in the sale of certain products but we have an increase in others. In addition, it is not only sanctions applied by us; it is bans against us, which have made it impossible to bring in frozen or fresh beef. But, there is no restriction on live cattle coming in. So we can help increase the herds here, help them improve their gene pool, and of course when the animal is slaughtered, you are really producing Australian beef.

Are there any cultural overlaps between Russia and Australia?

There is a huge Russian population in Australia. A huge number of Russians who fled to Australia pre-revolution, who then fought with the Australian and New Zealand army corps during the First World War. There are many 2nd and 3rd generation Russians now working in Australian companies, and it is fantastic because they understand the language, they understand the culture of what is happening here. Of course things are done differently here, but in the end of the day things are done differently everywhere, and there is always the possibility of understanding when people get together and share ideas, and maybe have a drink together. I think that Australians are very open, they want to know what is going on.

Australians tend to be a little friendlier in the way they start a business. They are unlikely to insist on selling you something; they would rather get to know a potential partner first, so that if a change happens, problems can still be sorted out. So it is an ongoing process. I get many people coming through here who need simple things like this explained. In general, I tell people to not be afraid of asking a straight and direct question to Russians, because they will get a straight and direct answer back.

What do you personally like or dislike about Russia?

I have only been here a short time, from February of last year. It was an amazing time to come here politically, socially and economically. I am really enjoying being here during this period of change and seeing what is happening. It is difficult from a business point of view, but sometimes difficulty gives you an opportunity. We have not closed up and walked away, if you can display that you have a commitment to the market, which we do, then you are respected back.

It was difficult coming here in the middle of winter from Hanoi where I was previously based. Now I love it here. I love the city life that really comes to life in the evenings. I love getting out to other parts of Russia. Apart from Vladivostok and St. Petersburg, we are also doing activities in places like Tomsk, Krasnodar, and other places.