What is your story, how did you get to be in Moscow?
I went to school in Austria, to a school that teaches Russian as an obligatory subject. This was because after the Second World War, as part of the peace treaty signed in 1945, the Soviet Union insisted that one school teaches Russian on an obligatory basis in Austria. Because the Soviet army was based in my school, they chose the school that I was to go to.
Your father chose the school for you?
My father and his brothers went to that school. My grandparents chose the school because it had better conditions for boarding school pupils at that time. Then my father and my two uncles went there, and my brother and me followed. We had three years of Russian at school, and when it came to deciding where to go to university, I decided that I wanted to do something different, and not go to France, to the UK, to stay in Vienna like my friends did. Then the opportunity came up to study economics in Russia at Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.. It was a gamble, but the programme at the university, at the faculty called âThe International Business Schoolâ, offered a four-year double degree programme, fully taught in English, with the first two years here in Russia, then a year abroad, then at other universities around the world. A double degree means a double bachelor, so a degree both from the Russian university and from a foreign university. So I went to Marseille for a year, the course was also in English, then I had a half year obligatory internship, which I could do anywhere in the world, and I did it at a subsidiary of Sberbank in Russia, in Vienna. I had a trilingual working day there, working in Russian, German and English. It was whilst working there that I realised that I would like to develop into corporate banking because I really liked how you can interact with clients doing that, from different industries, different countries of origin. Then I went back to Russia for these last six months, at university, wrote my thesis and took all of my final exams, and graduated in 2015.
During that time, during my last semester, I had already decided that I want to stay in Russia because I fell in love with this country, with Moscow. I fell in love with the people. I made real friends here, something that hadnât happened in France even though I spoke French fluently at the time. I worked in Vienna for 6 months, it was incredibly comfortable, working in the city centre, 5 minutesâ walk from home, but nothing exciting ever happened there. There is this saying which kind of reflects Vienna as it really is. âIf the world ends, go to Vienna because everything happens five years later there.â
Is communicating with expats one of the things you do now?
Since November last year I have been working for Raiffeisen, for the department that works with large international corporate clients. The second side of my work is business development, in the field of prime acquisition and reinforcing Raiffeisenâs presence in the international community. I work with the Chambers of Commerces here, with AEB etc., I help coordinate events and speakers at conferences and generally assist the bank in this field.
Why does a young man like yourself choose Russia? what with all the negative press about Russia, many would say the worst thing you could do is go to work for a bank in Russia!
I would say that the preconceived ideas that people have about Russia are very wrong.
What about the Russian economy?
Russia is an economy with 150 million inhabitants.
I thought it was 143 million?
Including Crimea. A market of 150 million people doesnât just disappear. So I see potential here, a lot of potential. The Russian economy is way under-developed. There is also this big misperception of big international companies coming to Russia, they usually plan local production mainly for the local market, which includes the CIS countries. But as the CEO of Volkswagen said recently at an AEB conference, this is a complete misunderstanding of the situation, because they should, especially now, with the devaluation of the rouble, use the advantage of the Russian market, start localisation, and start exporting from Russia globally. They should use the Special Economic Zones which are constantly growing and opening up all over Russia. He said that the main competitors for Volkswagen here are not other international brands, but Volkswagen India and Mexico because they produce cheaper and sell globally. So I see unlimited potential. The banking sphere is messy because it was one of the few sectors of the economy that was over-saturated, with more than 700 banks, but the Central Bank is doing everything to clean up this mess.
So Russia could become a production centre for the whole world?
It could get worse!
It could, but I think I understand Russia quite well. I can work with Russians. There is a specific Russian mentality, they are incredible people, they are warm people, friendly people, helpful, and I get along with them very well. I donât see why other Europeans couldnât or shouldnât.
Do you have the feeling that we are getting to the bottom of this separation of Europe?
I hope so. I have no idea why we have let ourselves be pushed into a situation like this. Of course it is the fault of both sides, both sides have handed it poorly diplomatically, but there is always a way back. This is the biggest market on Europeâs doorstep. You see already, if you look at statistics published by the German Chamber of Commerce now, investment volume of German companies in 2016 was the highest since 2009.
Despite the sanctions?
These are not the mega projects that they used to be. The current investors are medium sized investors, coming with five, twenty, thirty million Euro-projects, not tens of billions of Euros. Thus is increasing constantly, and it is what is needed, because the major projects are here already. Russia doesnât need any more of them. Russia for example, needs to fill in the missing local supply chain for cars for Volkswagen cars, for example.
So the crisis has been useful in some ways?
For some companies it has been good but the agricultural producers in Europe have been seriously affected. Europe has been moving from crisis to crisis. From Cyprus to Greece, to Ukraine to Brexit, the Euro crisis, so many crises. Because there have been so many crises, Europe doesnât have the energy to solve the problem with Russia.