How long have you been in Russia Mr. Ambassador?
For about one and a half years, I came in January last year, directly from London.
Is this your first posting in Russia?
It is my first posting in Russia. I have a history in negotiations with Russians in various fields especially in the field of cultural policy. I have been posted to Poland, which was quite helpful in understanding what is going on here.
How do you get on with the Russians you come across, as people, and what is it like to work with Russians in an official manner?
The first impression you get from the Russians is that they are very hospitable, that they are emotional, and also trustworthy. What I hear from our business community is that if you have an agreement with a Russian, you can trust him. Russians donât break their word. Iâm not talking about what happens in bureaucracy, at other levels, but on a personal level. We respect this because this works in Austria in a similar way.
What is your PhD in?
I am a historian.
Does that help you in your diplomatic career?
Certainly. My field of interest is European politics of the 19th and early 20th century. So I am looking at the period of decline of empires in Europe. I used my field of research when I was in London, and I can use it here again.
How close are Austria and Russia historically speaking?
They are very closely linked, from both sides. One of the strong points that we can see here in Russia is the feeling that there has always been a historical dimension to world affairs, and this relates back at least to the Congress of Vienna. This Congress is seen as a very positive step in geopolitics because it meant that peace can be negotiated successfully between the great powers, and that necessary conditions can be reached across the world for a global order which is sustainable.
To look at the contemporary world, do you think that Brexit will have an effect on the way that Austria relates to Russia?
I think the whole of Europe will be affected by this. What is interesting to me is that the Russian reaction to the decision was quite restrained, which I would say, reflects the pragmatic nature of Russian foreign policy, from the President downward. I think that Russia realises that there is potential for negative economic and political consequences. We share this view, and from my point of view I was happy to see the way the Russians reacted to Brexit.
The Austrian community is not large, but you punch way above your weight. How is that?
You may say that this is part of our imperial, Habsburg legacy. It is manifest in a heightened awareness of external relations, and the feeling that Austria has always been dependant more than other countries on what is happening internationally. Austriaâs geography has to be considered, the change of its political system, the change of its size to a more medium-sized country after the First World War. The second point is that Austrians feel they share a common understanding of what life is all about with central and eastern Europe countries. This is one of the reasons that Austrian business lost no time after the end of communism to invest strongly in the new democracies in central and eastern Europe, including Russia. Our economy is strongly export-orientated. We produce far more than we can sell in Austria, we need to export. Because of the fact that we concentrate on countries that on a cultural level, we feel that we understand, there is a tradition that if we have come here, we stay. In spite of waves of changes, there is a tendency to commit oneself for a longer time.
How many Austrians are there here?
We donât have official figures because there is no obligation that Austrians inform the embassy that they are staying here, but as far as I know, there are about 1,000 people in Moscow.
Is there a kind of trend, as to what industries Austrians are involved with here in Moscow?
Generally speaking, Austriansâ activities here follow on from our own economy at home. We are strong on new technologies and innovative products. We are also strong in ecological investments, innovative products, in pharmaceuticals, but also in infrastructure projects for railways, for security systems, and a whole range of activities that new technologies impact.
And of course you are only two hours away by plane?
There are both Russian and Austrian business people who regularly commute between Moscow and Vienna.
What is your prognosis of what is going to happen over the next few years?
Well, Russia is a stable society.
Does that include the political system?
At the moment the political system seems to be very stable. At the same time, as we know, this is a country with a tradition of revolutions. Austria and Russia is an interesting comparison because in Austria we have never had a real revolution. We tried once, in the middle of the 19th century, but this was crushed, and then there was a period of reform after which we changed from being a monarchy to a republic. But real revolutions are not something Austria does. Maybe Russia is entering into a period where there is a chance for evolutionary processes for reform.
What is certainly worrying is the social situation of the average and poor Russian. I think the government is very wise to do what they are doing, trying to make sure that the social system is working even in challenging economic times. And part of this is to have good relations with other trading partners. The European Union is Russiaâs biggest trading partner. So I think in the long run, there will be some sort of acceptance on both sides that it is in all of our interests to have good trading relations. There were times when in western Europe we thought we could export all sorts of ideas to other parts of the world. But the way to achieve this, is by convincing people by example.
Do you feel that Austrians here are carrying the flag, like they are ambassadors?
We try to put all of our money on dialogue, on talking to each other. We feel that talking to each other and dialogue is more successful than confrontation. I think that this is appreciated in Russia, and I think that this is also being more and more appreciated in other countries of the European Union.
Does your family like living here?
I am here with my wife. Sheâs a committed teacher and teaches English and history, but does not work here, as being the wife of an ambassador is a very very busy job in itself. She is wonderful at that, and she is also interested in the culture of this country, she enjoys it here tremendously. We are very lucky to be able to live here in this embassy, that belongs to the Republic of Austria. This incredible building, which was constructed in the early 20th century, provides space for everything that we need, from the holding of small meetings, to balls and chamber concerts, and people do like to come and visit. This is very good because I think that the last thing an ambassador should do is to stay only within the limits of the diplomatic community, he should go out and try to meet as many Russians as possible, and invest in direct contacts. I am a firm believer in trying to explain to people using modern social media what we are doing, and why we are doing what we do. Having all these people to people contacts, especially if political relations are difficult, is all the more important.
Do you try to showcase Austrian culture so that Russians can understand your country through culture?
I worked for almost ten years as political director for international cultural relations in Austria. So working with culture is very close to my heart because it is simply the best way to bring countries and peoples together.
But I have to admit that culture can also be a divisive factor. It is the way that you deal with it. I am against showcasing, and much more into giving people the opportunities to interact, as people have different cultural backgrounds and ideas of culture. My feeling is that if you want to be successful in negotiations or cultural relations, you have to put yourself under the skin of your interlocutor, you have to completely understand what your partner feels, how he perceives what is important to him, and to work on this. For doing so we have to understand our own national cultural identity, and this is important for Austrians because of all the changes we have experienced. Most of us speak German, we are a little bit Balkan, a little bit western European and we call ourselves a Central European nation. With such a creative pluralistic background we have to be clear of who we are before we start promoting our culture.