In an admission of its yawning skills gap, the British government announced in July that âit is trying to lure the Cityâs top talent to its Brexit team to build a 300-strong army of trade experts by the end of the yearâ (The Times 17.7.16). Officials are turning to law firms and consultancies such as Linklaters and McKinsey for talent to handle the complex task of leaving the EU and inking new deals. So with Brexit coming up, possibly within three years, we Brits may have to get out there out there and hunt for business.
Wait a minute! Expatriates business people who have been living in Russia for a long time have had to survive in somewhat hostile conditions. Hunters, they basically know what sectors to target, how to do things here, when to change tack and when to seek shelter. They know this from hands on experience in Russia, and their knowledge is now almost intuitive. Looking at this situation logically, from a commercial point of view, one would think that these people would be the first people that the government should go to for help for advice, help, contacts to hunt for business in Russia.
Be this as it may, hundreds of expatriate business people, and not only business people who have been here for decades in some cases, complain actively that their knowledge in this very specific market is being ignored by their embassy in Moscow. Most of them have no idea who the present ambassador is, who the last two were, or even what the British embassy does in Russia. Relations between the British embassy and the long-term expatriate community are that bad.
The feeling amongst British long term expatriates is that the support shown to British business is not nearly enough. Meanwhile, the RBCC (Russo-British Chamber of Commerce) is looking for a new Director. It is possible to speculate about reasons for that happening, as the RBCC works with the embassy, however Alan Thompson, the outgoing director, has done a fantastic job in a very difficult situation. The RBCC is a commercial organisation. If you pay your membership fees, you are in. The embassy is another question. The impression has been created, and maybe an incorrect impression, we donât know, that the embassy chooses what sort of expat to work with according to a policy set in London for reasons that we do not understand. What we do know for certain, however, is the reality â that in the uncertain financial times Britain is now entering (created mostly by ourselves); our country will depend on the wits, knowledge and contacts of people like long term expatriates like never before. And yet, if long term expats are to be believed, they are being cold-shouldered.
The community is more than the St. Andrews Church and Centre and the international schools, although these institutions are vital. As the editor of a magazine dedicated to expatriates in Moscow, I asked British âold timersâ if they feel their embassy is doing a good job, should they be invited to events, and suggestions of how to improve the effectivity of the embassy. Are these qualitative interviews representative of the whole? The answer is, yes. The result was a book full of material. Here are just a few responses, representative of the general sentiment.
Is the embassy doing its job?
âI canât speak for all British expats, of course, but the majority who have had any need to deal with them commercially seem to be bemused by the lack of support, advice or general help of any description. It should be the embassyâs duty to help British firms in Russia know about each other, network with each other and work with each other, but the barriers put up and lack of effort from embassy staff borders on incompetence.
âIn my personal opinion (and based on years of experience), if youâre not as big as a company like BP, you should manage your expectations carefully and expect nothing much more than lip-service and broken promises.
âItâs [the embassy] very much considered, by many, to be just a political embassy now, which means it sees the British expats and British businesses as more of a nuisance or irritant than anything else. Theyâve totally outsourced the visa section, so thatâs out of their hands (mainly), which means they only have to control the consular and commercial departments. Iâve found the consular section quite helpful in emergencies, to be honest, although it often seems a case of having to tell them what you need instead of the opposite. I do get frustrated that, despite having lived in Moscow for 20+ years, despite having the same personal email address for 16+ years, despite working for or running the Russian offices of a few British companies and despite âregisteringâ with the embassy numerous times, the embassy has yet to officially invite me to any commercial or public events. It seems that youâre only important if you make the effort to get to know âthe right peopleâ within the embassy, which surely isnât the way it should be.â
âI see the Embassy as frankly an expensive exercise in …. basically nothing… a building with lots of expensive expats who rotate in and out so quickly that relationships are not possible (maybe thatâs the point) to build. I have never seen anything of any value emerge from the old building or the new building in 23 years, at all. The function as a representativeÂ of Her Majestyâs Government is understood by those inside of the building, but to those of us outside of the building there is little or no attempt to communicate, support or sponsor the activities of the significant expatriate and resident British community. There is no recognition of the need to support commercial enterprise, or the community side of life for these people. It cannot just be about diplomacy, which letâs face it, has been lacking in for many years as the engagement between our government and that of Russia has been frankly woeful. There has been no attempt to engage the significant expertise and understanding of the Russia market that this community has.â
âThe functions of British embassies around the world differ in each country depending on their remit from London. In Moscow the British embassy is more focused on diplomatic and political affairs than business and economic issues.â
âI think that they believe so and are carrying out their mandateâ
âRemind me… what was their Job again??Â If it is purely political then I cannot answer this, but from a business perspective I would say an indefatigable NO! There are some very experienced businessmen in Russia who have been here a very long time and I have not heard recently of any being approached by the Commercial Dept. to help British Businesses enter the market, as used to happen frequently in the past.
âI receive the DTI export update and it often shocks me to see these so called Russia experts, based in the UK, give erroneous advice to British Companies. IMHO it is time for the Commercial section to get off their proverbial behinds and go and meet the British Businessmen in Moscow. Firstly, the Consul and his/her attaches would benefit from getting some first-hand experience and secondly they would understand the depth of the help available so that when British Businesses visit Russia, or make inquiries, then they could be directed to those who have seen it, done it and bought the T-shirt!â
Should long-term expats be invited to events?
âI think that at least once a year, better twice there should be an English tea party and all registered Brits invited… no Russians. A pure Brit eventâ
âFrom a commercial perspective, I think itâs a vital opportunity for British firms to help each other in a foreign land. I donât just mean giving each other valuable business but sharing experiences, sharing knowledge and actually helping a fellow Brit. If that turns out to be profitable for one of both parties then thatâs a bonus…
âFrom a personal perspective, they should understand how proud we are to be British and how much we would love to be proud of our embassy. One recent public event (organised by the embassy) was attended by more non-British than British whilst the more well-known and respected British expats werenât even invited. The embassy should be actively looking to encourage these people to attend as itâs these people who offer the knowledge and support that others so often need, especially in tougher times like now.â
âYes. When one is an expatriate and therefore away from home, the British embassy is a vital hub for business, social and cultural events. Being invited to regular events helps not only to bind together the British community, but improve networking.â
âIn my opinion yes, as it gives the Embassy staff the opportunity of finding out what is happening at the grass roots level. Â â¦I doubt if many Embassy staff have a clue what is really happening or what the real opinions of Russians are, let alone the expats.â
âThe core changes needed are communication between them and us, which, apart from an eclectic few who are on âthe list;â no one can get on. I asked a year ago to get on this list and received a reply which said they couldnât put me on âfor health and safety reasonâ in that the numbers would be too great! I nearly sent it off to Richard Littlejohn of The Daily Mail who would have loved it! The impression they give is that they are unapproachable, so if I got into any difficulties I wouldnât have a clue where to start unlike other embassies here in Moscow.â
What changes would you like to see to make the British embassy more effective?
âI would like to see a team created of Embassy and local expats who would be charged with being the social committee for the Brits here. It could be funded (small money for the FO) and could interact through other British organisations.Â I would also like to see the Embassy proactively working with local British entrepreneurs to encourage business development. The commercial section is also a mystery and Iâve no idea if they plan to work with the local community. Referring us to UKTI is frankly just slope-shouldering the responsibility.â
âAfter the EU referendum, the Department for International Trade has been established. Embassies around the world will then play a greater role in promoting British business in the country where they are based. In addition to the regular functions already performed, all British embassies should focus more on business and the community: They should host regular business events for British individuals and companies, house a greater amount of British Trade specialists, sector specific per country depending on the market potential, host monthly social events, arrange cultural days with local authorities, run outreach projects with local organisations/charities.â
âI would like to see some of us (a mixture of people from different walks of life) invited to the embassy on a regular basis, say once a quarter, to discuss day to day issues. The embassy staff forget that we are the eyes and ears for the embassy as we have our feet firmly planted on the ground, unlike the embassy staff who are cocooned in their own little world and frankly havenât the first idea about life on the street so to speak.â
âThey should try to make more contact,Â via RBCC and BBC (BBC seems no longer to be functioning, editor), they can obtain a lot of contacts but seem not to wish to do this?â
âFrom a commercial perspective, itâs means a complete overhaul of the way that British businesses are served and a far more pro-active approach taken. â¦Iâm not holding my breath as I simply donât think thereâs an appetite for improvement and itâs been like that since the hugely respected Tony Brenton was Ambassador. Maybe they should look at what the German and French embassies do to encourage their companies and individuals to work and live closer together as they get it right.â