I have been working in Russian for 15 months now. I presented my credentials in February 2012, then I returned to Jakarta for two weeks when I met with our president and members of the cabinet, and I then started work here in March of last year.
Have you been to Russian before?
Only once, for two short days back in 2010, when I represented the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) organisation at a conference in Moscow.
What is your perception of Russia and Russians now that you have been working here for over a year?
My perception is interesting. Let me give you some background. As a country we used to enjoy very good relations with the Soviet Union back in the 1950s and 1960s. Our president visited here a couple of times and we had thousands of students here. Due to the international geo-political situation in the late 1960s early 1970s, relations were not as close as earlier. We re-established links after the break up of the Soviet Union, and in 2003 Indonesia entered a comprehensive partnership with Russia based on political security, economic development and social culture. Based on this partnership we have re-engaged with Russia, and enjoyed a very prosperous relationship with this country.
For me, I hardly knew anything about Russia before I came here. When I got here I was quite surprised to find out just how beautiful Moscow and other Russian cities are. I have been travelling quite a lot, I have been to Vladivostok six times, to Ufa, to Novosibirsk, to Irkutsk and of course to St. Petersburg. I have been to many places. Itâs a huge country, a multi-cultured and multi-religious society, right now I am very impressed with Russia.
How many Indonesians are there in Russia?
Not that many, fewer than 500 including students I think. There are about 30 students now. There are some expats, most of them came here back in the 1950s and 1960s as students and stayed.
What kind of businesses are Indonesians involved with?
Indonesia is a part of ASEAN, and we are concentrating now on trade, investment and then social culture. Last year our trade reached $3.5bn, up from $2.5bn the year before. This is a substantial increase, but compared to our strategies within our comprehensive partnership, we have not reached our potential yet.
There is a surplus for Russia. Hopefully soon we will reach a balance. Thatâs my task here, to promote Indonesian goods in Russia. We have recently bought a lot Sukhoi commercial super jets, and the Russians are interested in Indonesian raw materials, furniture, clothing, palm oil and other goods.
Most Russians I know associate Indonesia with tourism, and not much else. Does Indonesia have an image problem, and how can that be changed?
The image problem works two ways, itâs not just misconceptions that Russians have about Indonesia, we are also talking about misconceptions that Indonesians have about Russia. Thatâs the reason I am engaged in a lot of promotional activities here. I am attending events organised by private Russian businessmen who want to do businessâ¨in Indonesia, as well as encouraging Indonesians to come â¨to Russia. But the first thing is to change preconceptions. â¨Of course we appreciate the fact that Russians consider Indonesia to be a beautiful country, but at the same time we would like them to come and do business with us. The geographical distance plays a big role, people in Eastern Russian feel that they are a long way away from us, but in fact they are closer than they are to Western Europe. For Indonesians as well, they sometimes feel that to come to Moscow is to come to the end of the world.
But isnât it rather a long way to fly from Jakarta to Vladivostok for example, you have to go through Moscow?
In fact you can fly via Seoul. This is why I did a promotional event in Vladivostok recently where I told people that to fly from Vladivostok to Indonesia you take a one and a half hour flight from Vladivostok to Seoul and then another short flight to Indonesia. People were surprised.
There are a lot of Russian businessmen coming to Indonesia now. Here we have the Indonesia-Russia Business Council. Only last week, the owner of Russal went to Jakarta, last month a high level delegation from Russian Railways visited, just two months ago a group of Indonesian business men came here, last December 70 Russian businessmen went to Indonesia. This is the sort of thing that we are promoting.
Is ASEAN a purely trade organisation or is it similar to the EU and also have political powers?
To answer your question I have to briefly tell you the history of ASEAN. We established ASEAN in August 1967, the original initiative was put forward by the former foreign minister of Indonesia, he used to be the Ambassador here from 1964-67 and then he became our foreign minister and established ASEAN with 5 member countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore. At that time, some of these countries were in conflict with each other. The original idea was to establish a peaceful and stable region, because we realised that nobody will be interested in our region if we donât. So at the time, the main goal was to prevent conflict and to maintain peace and security. From then on, a lot of investors came, and we were considered to be a new âtigerâ.
For 44 years there has been no open conflict in the region. Then we enlarged the membership to cover all of the South East Asian nations; to include Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and recently Myanmar. So what started out as a group of countries who simply wanted â¨to avoid conflict has now adopted a different mission, to unite together by 2015 in three common communities: a political and security community, an common economic community, and a common social cultural community. We have learned many lessons from the European Union. For example, single production whereby production is unified throughout the region for certain goods. Each country specialises in particular services and can compliment each other. The headquarters of ASEAN is in Jakarta. So now, all foreign ambassadors in Jakarta also become ambassadors to ASEAN.
Every year leaders of ASEAN meet, where issues are discussed and resolved. They have become summits amongst friends. Alongside of ASEAN we have another organisation called ASEAN plus three which is the ASEAN countries plus our main trade partners: China, Japan and South Korea. Also in 2005, we established the East Asia summit as a platform where ASIEAN leaders plus three, plus Australia, India and New Zealand can meet together. Russia and the USA have recently joined.
During the 2008-2009 crisis, we were one of only three counties â China, Indonesia and India â which were able to maintain positive economic growth. The economic bounce back in the region was very fast. Within a year after the crisis, Singapore notched up a 15% growth rate, Thailand was soon up to 5%. The Philippines economy is now moving forwardâ¨as well. These are the things that I have tried to explain to the Russian community, in particular I point out the unique role of Indonesia as a centre and gateway for the ASEAN countries.
Russian and Indonesia culture seem to be pretty far apart. Is there any one aspect of Russian culture that you, as an Indonesian likes and can identify with?
I love traditional Russian culture, I like many of the traditional folk songs and traditional dance routines, and the upbeat nature of modern Russian pop culture is similar to what is happening in Indonesia. Of course I have been to the Bolshoi three or four times, my wife loves that. But my personal interest is more in the area of traditional culture. Every time that I am away from Moscow, I try to enjoy the traditional culture of that region. I do think that on this deep level of traditional culture, Russia and Indonesia share some common points. The other thing is inter-faith dialogue. I have met a lot of religious leaders here in Russia, and I am aware that there are a lot of things that we can learn from each other.
What does your family think of Moscow?
My wife loves Russia and this city. She is a photographer; every time I go anywhere she follows me, takes a picture and puts it on facebook. My three children; one is working in Jakarta, the second is a postgrad in the Netherlands, the third is in a college in Indonesia, have all been to visit me here. t.