Interview with Pavel Chinsky

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What is the CCIFR?

The French-Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is aimed at developing economic cooperation between Russia and France. On one hand, we help and support the French business community in Moscow and all of Russia, and on the other we promote France as the right place for Russian investments, especially for Russian companies willing to expand in Europe or acquire new technologies and competencies.

We organise a large variety of different events for our members to meet each other, such as sector committees, business presentations, B2B meetings, cultural events. This enables small businesses to meet big companies, for consulting firms to meet those who need their services, and so on. For example, Leroy Merlin can meet and negotiate with potential suppliers during the sessions of our Retail Committee… We wish to make it possible for Auchan to meet with a farmer from Krasnodar who grows really fantastic apples, and of course, I as a common Auchan customer want to be able to find the best products there. We organise several networking events such as dinners for the General Directors of our members’ companies, conferences and seminars on themes which can help our members to ‘feel the new trends and foresee future ones’. One important part of our work is devoted to organising meetings with Russian officials as well as delegations to the regions, where our members present their projects to governors and regional ministers. We regularly publish success stories about these delegations to show how effective they are.

We also welcome French officials to Russia and organise meetings with our members, in order for the French community in Russia to express its views and wishes. This is very important for us. For example, we received President François Hollande in February 2013 and our Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault just a couple of months ago.

The President of the Chamber and I participate in different business events and forums in Russia, where we present our ideas on how local authorities should improve their business environment in order to convince French investors to choose their territories.

Another purpose of our association is to provide our members with specific, say ‘technical’ services, such as Russian and French business language lessons or delivery of work permits for foreign employees as fast as possible. I can say from my experience that in several cases, the rapidity of such services was crucial to fulfil serious business tasks.

And also, a great part of our work is aimed at lobbying the interests of our members amongst Russian and French authorities. This concerns not only business matters, but also visas, an issue which is quite important for our Russian friends.

We are 100% private and work on the basis of the annual fees paid by our members.

How was the association formed?

There are over 100 French Chambers of Commerce and Industry throughout the world. The first one was created in Uruguay at the end of the 19th century. They do not receive any public subsidies and are not under any kind of government supervision. We help each other, and I often meet with my colleagues from London, Berlin, Madrid, which enables us to exchange ideas and information with each other.

The CCIFR was created as a private initiative by a dozen French companies in 1997, just a century after the one in Uruguay (smiling) and one year before the crisis in Russia. At the time, it was called the Club France. When I started working for it in 2007, my goal was to transform it into a business association and to work more intensively with Russian associations and companies as well as with the French authorities.

You said that it is privately financed, how does that work?

We present a ‘menu’ of services for companies to choose from, and they select which membership category fits them the best. Obviously, a small company and a huge international group such as Total need different services. But at the same time a medium-sized Russian consulting company – for example Skif Consulting – can choose to be a ‘Member of Honour’ just like the Rosbank/Société Générale Group. We have 8 different categories with different fees, and I hope they can satisfy everybody’s needs. Of course, I am open to any new ideas, demands and wishes. 

Are you able to do everything that you want to do, or do you suffer from a lack of financial support?

It is a national character: French people always complain! (laughing) We develop facilities and programmes with the budget that we have. Nowadays, our budget allows us to organise many delegations to the Russian provinces as well as Russian delegations to France. The Chamber has 30 full-time employees. Nowadays, our association counts more than 400 member companies, mainly French, but 30% of them are Russian and we also have several German and American companies.

How do you help French companies to enter the Russian market?

We consider ourselves to be a door to Russia. When a company is interested in the Russian market, the easiest thing to do is to Google ‘Russia’ and find the contacts of Russian companies. There certainly is plenty of information on the Internet, but it is we and not the Internet that can tell you what is possible and what is not, which Russian regions to choose, if you can find a niche in this market and where to start.

Newcomers usually find us through different ways, for example through the regional chambers of commerce in France. Many companies come across our name in newspapers and some through other unidentified sources.

And starting from February 2014, our think-tank, the Observatoire franco-russe, will start a programme which – I am sure – will expand the number of newcomers: a series of conferences in the French regions on the economic situation and the business environment in Russia. Local companies will be able to ask all the questions they want on ‘scary Russia’. Because it really is the lack of knowledge on Russia that is the main obstacle for the development of a wider cooperation.

What about helping Russian companies who want to export to France?

It’s not so much about exporting: unfortunately, oil and gas doesn’t go through us (laughing)! Over the past decade, Russians have been investing in real estate in France, on the Riviera and in Paris for example, and only recently they started to invest in French companies. Russian companies do not export so many goods these days, but they create joint ventures with French companies who have technology to share or to sell, with the aim of setting up production facilities in France or to import technology and organize production in Russia. We know quite a lot of such successful cases.

In December, the CCIFR held its Ceremony of Awards: the Russian company Progresstech received an award for their investment in France, as they opened an office in Toulouse and will work on aviation and engineering consulting.

Over the last 5 years have you noticed relations between Russian authorities and French businesses are getting better or worse?

Once again, the French people would say it’s complicated, the expenses are growing, bureaucracy is still strong… This complaining is typical of our national character, but it doesn’t reflect the reality. In fact, relations are cyclical. There are periods of very-very close dialogue, such as the France-Russia Year in 2010, during which more than 400 cultural events were organised. We realised then that cultural events can be quite interesting for business also. The new French government which was elected two years ago did not know Russia as well as the previous one, but experience showed that there is a number of pragmatic people working for the current government. The visit of French President François Hollande in February 2013 resulted in the signature of contracts. Then Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault came and again, several agreements were signed. So it is like a new cycle… France is actually the third largest direct investor in Russia after Germany and Sweden, of course if we leave aside countries such as Cyprus. But we seek to do even better.

A lot of business associations have difficulty in distinguishing between business and culture when compiling agendas for their events. How do you handle this issue?

We always try to do cultural events as well as business events. It’s quite interesting to note that it is our Russian partners who insist the most on the cultural aspect. There are many cultural programmes that we have been involved in, for example we helped to sign the agreement to create the first permanent Russian exhibition at the Louvre. All cultural programs help to modify people’s perceptions of Russia, because we all know what is associated with the word Russia when you pronounce it in Paris or in London. And Russian businessmen see that through culture they can not only make the image of Russia more positive but also develop business more effectively.

Actually, when I am asked about the main problems that we face working here in Russia, I see that the problem of perception is even worse than the problem of bureaucracy. EY did a very interesting study, asking companies from all over the world: what is your attitude to business in Russia, will you carry on? 85% of foreigners working in Russia said ‘yes’, we are investing and will carry on investing. But the same proportion of companies when asked about Russia in their home countries, said that they would never invest in Russia because of the usual stereotype issues. It is still not easy for business people to get visas to see for themselves what Russia is like, so the concepts live on. We hear from French CEOs here that it is sometimes quite difficult for them to shake their management in Paris to get the green light for a particular project. This is one of the reasons why we created the Economic Council of French and Russian companies in 2009. On the one hand, to work on a local level, and on the other to have direct access to the headquarters of these companies and give them our point of view on the situation here.

Certain perceptions about doing business in France also exist, and they prevent some Russians from doing business in France. People do not like to be told that they are wrong, even if the reality is contrary and Paris wins the first place among all European capitals as ‘the most attractive city to invest…’ So the perception is the most important and influencing thing. 

What is your gut feeling about how things are going to go in Russia over the next year or two?

Well, right now, we are all waiting for the benefits of the Olympic Games. We are waiting to see which lessons the Russian authorities will retain, and how it will change or not change its policies. I think that this is a very significant event for Russia. If we talk globally, the Russian economy is in better health than European economies. We have grown accustomed to 7% growth over the past decade, then it came down to 4% and now it is 1.5%, but that is not so bad in comparison to Western Europe.

In the short term, the issues are about developing infrastructures, emphasis on Siberia and Far East, about social issues, but let’s wait until after the Olympics.

Do you personally like living here?

I was born here, but I was raised in France, now I have returned to my roots. During the Soviet Union, when people left they left forever. Now leaving is not called emigration, it’s just migration. So maybe I will go back to France in 5, 10 or 20 years; it’s not so complicated. I have a lot of friends, relatives and family members both here and there. I can choose where to live and work in that place where I can be most effective. I must say that Russia is an amazing place, and it is the only place in the world where French and other foreign business communities work together in relative harmony. You have to come to Russia to see that.